The Barbican: Beethoven Weekender: Symphonies, Songs and Simon Callow

February 6, 2020

From February 1st to February 2nd, the Barbican Centre threw open its doors in celebration of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday. This weekend was filled to the brim with concerts, discussions and literary performances that warmly revealed the man behind the music and the connection between Beethoven’s interiority and creativity.


The excess of emotions that flooded Beethoven’s veins during his historically turbulent relationship with his hearing were exquisitely expressed by the dramatic performances of his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies (courtesy of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Vasily Petrenko). The gradual crescendo of the strings, followed by the woodwind and brass conveyed the tempestuous winds that ran wild within the ever-fraught mind of our deeply troubled Beethoven. Whilst this climactic crest raised the roof of The Great Hall, Petrenko’s precision and guidance mimicked the perfection found within the master composer’s writing, and the orchestra’s expressive movements attuned the audience to the inner conflicts Beethoven suffered.



Photo credit: The Barbican Centre Press



Finding words to perfectly express such tender emotions provoked by Beethoven’s tragic hearing loss is a task few have attempted successfully. However, his timbre quartet pieces perfectly unravel such interiority. Regarding this subject matter, alongside powerful romance and family turmoil, The Barbican cultivated a performance based around Beethoven’s own correspondence to evoke the poignant inspiration behind his string quartets.


Callow, through the reading of Beethoven’s personal letters, depicted the pain that the composer’s gradual hearing loss provoked perfectly. He brought to fruition Beethoven’s fraught interior, portraying a bewildered man, caught between thoughts of suicide and the motivation to journey on in the face of distressing hardship. The magnificent Carducci Quartet accompanied Callow in this performance, filling each note with a strong sense of sentiment and fervor. Their rendition of Beethoven’s string pieces overwhelmed the room, igniting the senses that the darkened hall had dulled.


The cast revived the affection Beethoven declared to his ‘Immortal Beloved’ through the combination of intensely heartfelt letters with profoundly intimate string pieces; the composer’s tenderness towards his dearest was excellently expressed. The seamless conversation between cello and first violin imitated a lover’s tête-à-tête. Callow demonstrated his ability to awaken the sensitivity in the most mellow of audiences, breathing life into the written word and demonstrating his own affinity with both the regret and riches of romance. Callow's performance exhibited an identification with Beethoven that would force the most cynical of critics to forget that the wondrous words he pronounced were not his own.





Photo credit: The Barbican Centre Press


Together, Callow and The Carducci Quartet commanded a memorable performance that kindled sympathy in each and every member of the audience. The solace and compassion induced can be compared to no other production I have seen to date. The Barbican Centre has excelled.


Edited by Alexia McDonald, Head of Digital

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