Gardiner Beethoven

Beethoven
Coriolan – Overture, Op.62
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir John Eliot Gardiner


Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 7 April, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Regardless of what you think of Gardiner’s interpretations, they’re always illuminating, either expanding your conception of the composer’s musical language or merely suggesting refreshingly novel ways to phrase long-familiar melodies. This programme was no exception. Starting with the Coriolan Overture to warm up the associative faculties before the more explicitly programmatic Pastoral Symphony, the concert ended with the ostensibly more abstract Symphony No.7. In reality, though, all music is simultaneously programmatic (it depicts ‘something’, even if at the level of feeling alone) and abstract (it ‘abstracts’ the essentials of what is being depicted by forcing it into language); Gardiner’s awareness of this gives his performances a very specific unity.

The chief elements of Gardiner’s approach were evident from the outset: brisk tempos, rhythmic vitality, no string vibrato and a precise approach to orchestral balance in which normally recessive lines were given more prominence than is usual. In the overture, these elements gave a peculiar urgency to the central themes while paradoxically draining them of warmth – despite punchy, sinuous playing from the LSO. The attenuated silences between the chords of the first theme were effective in heightening the drama, to be sure, as was the sheer pace. But Volumnia’s theme lacked an inner glow, the phrasing too ‘Classical’: exciting but lacking humanity.

The ekphrasis of the Pastoral, however, benefited in every way from the same approach, with Gardiner building up a colourful and vibrant picture through sheer attention to detail. For example, the transparency of the vibrato-less strings allowed the foregrounding of the murmuring accompaniment in the second movement to conjure up clear, running water without the rise in tension normally associated with multiple salient lines; likewise the delicate yet prominent trills under the bassoon’s turn at the melody. And the playing Gardiner drew from the double basses (lined up at the rear-right of the orchestra) was truly phenomenal, both in the rustic dances of the third movement and the storm scene. Also evident was Gardiner’s mastery of the Romantic idiom, with the fourth movement very Berliozian and the final, effulgent Allegretto sounding strangely redolent of Richard Strauss.

Symphony No.7 received no less treatment, although here there were some problems. The opening Poco Sostenuto sounded dangerously like an orchestrated Czerny study, such was the rigidity of both the tempo and the articulation; the transition to the Vivace was surprisingly messy. But the beautiful performance of the Allegretto made up for past sins, with much being made of the dance-like quality and contrasts. The appoggiaturae were phrased à la Haydn, the antiphony between the violins and violas (arranged on either side of the podium), especially in the fugal section, carefully managed, and the assertive return of the minor after the first foray into the major key nicely judged. The horn section shone in the third movement, and the final Allegro con brio came across as truly celebratory and life-affirming.

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