Having completed a three-year Beethoven cycle as recently as 2010, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the LSO now returned to the composer with this programme which will be repeated over the next week in Birmingham, Hamburg, Hannover and Munich.
Beethoven’s First Symphony opens with the musical equivalent of a question mark. Gardiner let it hang in the air for a moment longer than usual as though to make sure we got the point; and his expansive tempo for the Adagio introduction made it clear that we had advanced beyond the world of Haydn. The succeeding Allegro was definitely con brio
, fast and furious, clean as a whistle and driven forward with tremendous impetus. The slow movement struck a fine balance between trivialising the music (as can
happen if too much is made of its con moto
marking) and seeking undue profundity where none exists (all too easy if the tempo is dragged). In the Minuet – a scherzo in all but name – the timpani (played with hard sticks) made a thunderous impact and the large violin section scampered through the tricky Trio with an enviable lightness. In the finale doubts began to surface; for all the excellence of the LSO’s playing – strings without vibrato throughout – this is music with a smile on its face. Gardiner attacked it with a forcefulness that would have been more in place in one of the later symphonies: the result was two-dimensional, the humour brusque.
For much of its duration the ‘Choral’ was admirably direct and unfussy, a welcome antidote to those conductors who underline every key-change and ritenuto
as though it were Holy Writ. By contrast, Gardiner let the music speak for itself, tension sustained at the highest level over long spans with minimal deviations to headlong tempos both in the first movement and in the scherzo. In the latter there was a curious effect as the timpani interjections receded into the distance – diminishing their shock value – and in the trio even the excellent oboist (Emmanuel Abbühl) struggled to phrase at Gardiner’s unforgiving speed.
The slow movement was notable. The tempo relationship between Adagio molto and Andante moderato was judged with real acuity, pure and spiritual then lilting with easy flow; and that curious exploratory passage where the Adagio returns with pizzicato accompaniment was balanced with rare clarity. The movement flowed with complete naturalness.
If only the finale had been on the same level. Curiously, given Gardiner’s eminence as a choral conductor, it was precisely here that the performance was least satisfactory, not because of the excellent Monteverdi Choir (although a choir of 36 members, even a professional one, inevitably sounded under-powered in comparison with the LSO in full cry), but more fundamentally because at Gardiner’s extreme tempos it was extraordinarily difficult for choir and soloists to articulate with any clarity. Of course, there are moments where extreme energy is called for, but too often the solo quartet, here seated behind the orchestra, was drowned out, Michael Spyres a notable casualty in “Froh, froh, wie seine sonnen”. Vuyani Mlinde made the strongest impression but the two ladies, neither of them large voices, required more sensitive handling. Gardiner’s speeds in the ‘Alla marcia’ and “Tochter aus Elysium” (marked Allegro ma non tanto) were so swift as to be borderline unworkable musically and undermined the ascent to that final eruption of joy: a real pity.