Beethoven: the Symphonies (Barbican, London)

Alexandra Coghlan revels in a ferocious tribute to Beethoven.

Beethoven: the Symphonies
Barbican, London EC2

The conductor Riccardo Chailly has described his Beethoven symphony cycle with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (ten days, nine symphonies, five concerts) as "a single, gigantic masterpiece in 37 movements". This vision of a single musical trajectory is the steel that
underpins Chailly's rambunctious Beethoven. Hot-headed it may be, but with the ecstatic, choral cry of "Götterfunken" already glowing in the distance, there is directional intent.

The series opened on 25 October with an unlikely coupling, setting the Second Symphony, all joyful, youthful bravado, against the grizzled maturity of the Fifth. There is an offbeat energy that drives the Second from the adagio molto through to its helter-skelter finale in the allegro molto, but rarely is it allowed to emerge as clearly as it did here - the syncopated heartbeat of the work. Chailly persuaded his orchestra to set aside its trademark decorum in favour of an athleticism that, while it seemed never to grasp the "touching solemnity" that Berlioz ascribes to the adagio, unravelled enough to take lyrical pause in the larghetto and the aching legato of its clarinet melody.

Chailly's radicalism is underlined in the contemporary works that appear in each concert of the cycle. Commissioned by the orchestra, five composers were given the task of responding to a different symphony by Beethoven. Handed the Fifth, Italy's Carlo Boccadoro responded with a bold timpani concerto in miniature, whose textural gestures metamorphosed Beethoven's martial drum rolls.

Stripped back to a sinister death rattle, the timpani spluttered over the husky atmospherics of muted brass and strings struck with the backs of bows - the skeletal remains of melody. Boccadoro's work exposed its limits in overt quotation of his Beethoven original, turning a side-glancing homage into a brasher piece of technical showmanship.

Taking up the challenge of Beethoven's original tempo markings, Chailly propelled us into a performance of the Fifth whose speed did nothing to soften its intensity. The symphony's opening motif, to whose inherent menace the years have added rather ponderous weight, became a snarl, impatient to bite into the C-minor string melody that follows.

If civilisation is under threat from Beet­hoven's symphony, as Goethe believed, then walls may have crumbled at the ferocity of attack that the orchestra found in the transition into the final allegro. Chailly insisted on a brutality that persisted through the intimate exchanges between wind and strings - a finale unable to forget the foreboding opening theme.

It is Chailly's lack of fear, his willingness to look Beethoven's most familiar symphonies in the eye and greet them as strangers, that is so rare. To do so with any ensemble would be a formidable task but to achieve this with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra - the first orchestra ever to perform a complete Beethoven symphony cycle, whose blood runs rich and dark with the composer's melodies - is heroic: a worthy and iconoclastic tribute to music's greatest revolutionary.

This article first appeared in the 07 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The triumph of the Taliban