City of London Festival – Beethoven’s Choral Symphony at St Paul’s – LSO/Gardiner

Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Lucy Crowe (soprano), Wilke te Brummelstroete (mezzo-soprano), Steve Davislim (tenor) & Vuyani Mlinde (bass-baritone)

Monteverdi Choir

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 8 July, 2010
Venue: St Paul's Cathedral, London

Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Phoptograph: Sheila Rock. ©DeccaThis concert should have been a non-starter: unlike such grandiose works as Verdi’s “Messa da Requiem” or even Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius”, Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony teems with far too much intricacy to succeed in the cavernous acoustic of St Paul’s Cathedral. And yet somehow, magically, Sir John Eliot Gardiner pulled off a triumph.

The vast reverb certainly took some getting used to. Whole swathes of detail, mainly woodwind and horn lines, were completely swamped by strings; when the timpani and brass thundered, nothing else stood a chance. But once allowances for this had been made, it was possible to start appreciating the performance beneath it all. And what a performance it was! Gardiner, traditionally a speed-merchant in Beethoven, made very few concessions to the vast space: the first movement was possibly a shade steadier than usual, and articulation throughout the work perhaps a fraction more emphatic, but generally tempos were brisk and invigorating.

The first movement, powerfully driven and incisively articulated, had both gravitas and excitement – surely the two most essential ingredients for this music, and not always successfully combined by conductors. The climax of the development was nothing short of thrilling; the shivering, slightly menacing string motif in the coda was electrifying. The scherzo motored along with white-knuckle energy. Ensemble was astonishingly tight and the overall effect remarkably coherent – although the trio section was a little gabbled, one of the very few places where Gardiner’s direction felt uncomfortably fast. The Adagio was nicely flowing, sensitive but not sentimental. It’s mystifyingly rare that a conductor successfully negotiates the first-violin chords at the climax, but here they had terrific weight and power.

Lucy Crowe. Photograph: Sussie AhlburgThe double basses’ and cellos’ recitative at the start of the finale was murky, to say the least, but the first orchestral statement of the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme was rendered with a marvellous fusion of nobility and serenity. The choreographed standing of each section of the Monteverdi Choir before its members started to sing was rather comic, but they sang their socks off – making all the more impact without scores to get in the way. Of the soloists, only soprano Lucy Crowe made any impact (standing in at short notice for an indisposed Rebecca Evans); the others were pretty much inaudible most of the time.

The London Symphony Orchestra – string-players using little or no vibrato, violins divided left and right – played magnificently. The hell-for-leather abandon in the sprint to the finish was exhilarating. Although a lot of crucial detail was smudged over, perhaps this performance worked so well because, rather than in spite of the acoustic. The magisterial reverb provided a mystical aura which worked wonders at blending and cosseting. Whatever the truth, this was a great occasion which the thousands who attended will surely remember for a long time.

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