Music review: Beethoven’s Emperor, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Adelaide Town Hall

A masterful evening of historically informed music played with astonishing contemporary panache.
Beethoven's Emperor. The image is a black backdrop with a man with short dark hair wearing a dark jacket and a white shirt. He is shot from the chest up holding his chin in his right hand and looking at the camera.

It’s always a delight to see the acclaimed Australian pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout on stage. For this wonderful performance he is guest soloist on the forte piano and musical director for the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Developed as an homage to the enduring power of Ludwig van Beethoven, the program features an eclectic and engaging range of works.  

The highlight piece, the wonderful Piano Concerto No. 5 ‘Emperor’ fills the second half of the program and was met with thunderous applause on the night this reviewer attended.

The first half is devoted to an intriguing selection of new and old works somehow linked to Beethoven, and illuminating just a fraction of his incomparable musical legacy.

With lead violin Helena Rathbone at his side, Bezuidenhout opens the performance with a movement from the Symphony No. 2 by Ferdinand Ries, a talented pianist, conductor and composer who studied and worked with Beethoven. This symphony, considered by many to be Ries’ best work, was dedicated to Beethoven.

Franz Schubert was another composer in awe of Beethoven; he also had the honour of being a pallbearer at Beethoven’s funeral in 1827. For this performance, Bezuidenhout melds two of Schubert’s most sublime pieces to create, in effect, a new work. The delicacy of Bezuidenhout’s touch throughout the exquisite forte piano solos is really quite remarkable, especially in contrast to his usual intensity, both in playing and conducting. 

From here it is A Walk to Beethoven’s First Symphony, a new work by Swedish composer Britta Byström and part of a series of “walks” inspired by famous composers. Opening with some tremulous pizzicatos and featuring wind instruments along with the strings, this is a charming and inviting piece.

Bezuidenhout continues straight into a brief piano movement of Beethoven arranged by Franz Liszt and then into Beethoven’s cadenza from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor that is one of many he wrote.

And so after interval it is the main event, a wonderful rendition of the ‘Emperor’. There really is something quite magical about hearing an historically informed performance played on predominantly period instruments. Indeed, some of these fine instruments are hundreds of years old. Julian Thompson’s cello will have its 300th birthday in just a couple of years, Timo-Veikko Valve’s Brothers Amati cello dates from 1616 and Principal Violin Helena Rathbone plays a 1732 “ex-Dollfus” Stradivarius, loaned to her by private Australian benefactors.

Read: Music review: Candlelight: A Tribute to Mitski, Athenaeum 

As musical director for this concert, Bezuidenhout really celebrates the warmth and authenticity of these period instruments, creating a revelatory experience for the audience. The full house in Adelaide appreciated every note and every moment of this glorious performance of historically informed music played with astonishing contemporary panache. 

Beethoven’s Emperor
Director and Fortepiano: Kristian Bezuidenhout
Lead Violin: Helena Rathbone
Australian Chamber Orchestra

Beethoven’s Emperor was performed at the Adelaide Town Hall on 12 March 2024 and is touring nationally.

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.