Review: The Beethoven beat hits top speed in NACO’s symphonies 7 and 8

Alexander Shelley and NACO are heading on the road. Photo: Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photography

Pulling into the homestretch of their Beethoven symphony cycle, Alexander Shelley and NACO laid down rousing, passionate performances of the Seventh and Eighth Thursday night.

Speaking to the audience, Shelley mentioned that as red-hot as his tempi may seem, they were still slower than the actual metronome markings on Beethoven’s original scores. This is a point that has ignited spirited debates among performers and musicologists for decades. Beethoven’s metronome indications are often so impossibly, incongruously fast, in fact, that research points to the logical conclusion that the composer’s metronome was broken.

Shelley didn’t really need a historical justification for his choices: the exhilarating results were enough. The introduction to the Seventh was stoked to a slow burn, expansive, generous, the transition to Vivace like embers bursting into quick flame. Shelley took the second movement attacca, without pausing; his use of divided violins, which he favours for classical and early Romantic repertoire, worked particularly well here as the variations snaked their way through the strings. For all its explosive energy, the Scherzo’s jovial, foxhunting rhythms were crisply defined,with a handsome sound from the woodwind ensemble in the trio.  The breakneck, ferociously churning finale (in the new acoustics, the double basses sound more formidable than ever) deservedly brought the audience to its feet, cheering wildly.

The fireworks continued with the Eighth. The fizzy opening movement soared on a cloud of unbridled optimism, the string sound plump and sensual. In the Menuetto, elements like the graceful little bassoon duet were warmly highlighted. Beethoven’s lovely small ensemble writing in the Trio — two horns, clarinet, cello, double bass — has never sounded so nostalgic or intimate in this hall. Shelley kept the finale tightly coiled, fleet-footed, and relentlessly upbeat. The coda was thrown down by the whole orchestra with a sort of “just watch me” glee.

There were beautiful solos throughout both works from NACO’s team #floboe, Joanna G’froerer and Chip Hamann. But MVP of the night has to go to unflappable timpanist Feza Zweifel.

NACO’s Focus Festival concludes Saturday night with Beethoven’s Ninth.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.