WHAT WAS Beethoven? A classical composer, or a Romantic? It was a mark of the success of Wednesday's Prom - the Dresden Staatskapelle under Sir Colin Davis - that for a moment the old debate seemed completely settled, with Beethoven established as the first great musical Romantic.
Nobody hesitates to call Beethoven's contemporaries Romantic - a writer like Tieck, or a painter like Caspar David Friedrich. If they were at it, why not Beethoven? "The Divine is everywhere, even in a grain of sand," wrote Friedrich - and all the careful notation of nature in his landscape paintings served that one Romantic insight. Mightn't Beethoven have been doing something similar in his own depiction of nature, the Pastoral Symphony?
Babbling brook, thunderstorm, the songs of nightingale, cuckoo and quail, it's wonderful, relaxed music, of course, but there's no doubting the deliberateness of its arrangement. "We feel as if we were in the concert hall of Nature," wrote Beethoven's friend, Schindler, of the symphony; and the same man informs us of Beethoven's belief that God was "in the World and the World in God". Wednesday's account of the work seemed to lead to just such Romantic conclusions: everything built inexorably towards the great final movement, the "Happy and thankful feelings after the storm". No swoony strings or ponderous tempi in the old- fashioned Romantic way; all was rhythmically alive and tightly organised. The last drum rolls of thunder subsiding over the horizon, the Allegretto got under way - and the musical lifting of clouds did indeed seem divine; a true Romantic epiphany.
Only a good orchestra could have done that, and the Dresden Staatskapelle is very good: disciplined enough to know how to act relaxed, and not an over-ambitious soloist among them. They make a wonderful sound: warm, and soft at the edges without - somehow - being ill-defined. The individual instrumentalists too, were spot-on, knowing just how far to step out of the orchestral melee when their number was called. The orchestra's leader who played a delicate solo in a Brahms' First Symphony after the interval (an uplifting performance) gave Sir Colin a courtly half-bow every time the conductor came on stage, and his orchestra took his tune.
It was a struggle, but on Tuesday - when the Staatskapelle was playing the first of its two Proms - I slipped off to the Wigmore Hall. Sir Colin will be returning to London permanently next year as Principal Conductor of the LSO, which was some consolation, and the Lieder recital at the Wigmore wasn't so bad either.
The programme did look strict, it has to be said: the entire Italienisches Liederbuch of Hugo Wolf, containing 46 of the 300 or more songs composed by the Austrian during his short life (Wolf was another of music's casualties to syphilis). …