Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92
Symphony No.5 in C minor
Thursday, November 17, 2011
Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, Op.43 – Overture
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 17 November, 2011
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
I arrived at Carnegie Hall for the first of two Beethoven evenings by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique thinking I knew pretty much what to expect. But right from the opening of the Egmont Overture it was immediately clear that this concert would be an extraordinary event, and quite different – and more exciting – than anticipated.
This ensemble’s name fits aptly the music of Beethoven, the most revolutionary of composers who led music’s transition into romanticism, yet it has been nearly two decades since the ORR last traversed the symphony cycle. Gardiner’s emphasis in these concerts was more on the révolutionnaire than on the romantique, with fierce attacks, driving rhythms and rapid tempos producing thrilling results. Gardiner seated the wind players on risers, allowing their ‘period’ instruments – including wooden flutes, hand-stopped horns and valve-less trumpets – to project over the strings (violins antiphonal) at stage level, all strung with gut and played without vibrato. ‘Authentic’ timpani, played with hard sticks, were stationed behind the second violins, and four double basses were on a low riser behind the firsts.
The Egmont Overture got things off to an auspicious start, its sustained opening chord and the marcato string passage that followed resonating majestically. Gardiner took every opportunity to show off his musicians in a gripping and fast-paced performance that was in turn gentle and biting, the horn-calls pointing toward a roaring finish with a piccolo added to the final chords. The second concert’s curtain-raiser was the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Beethoven’s sole ballet score, which did not match the level of excitement that Egmont had generated.
On each evening, Gardiner reversed the order of the symphonies from that announced. An insert in the printed program advised that the Seventh would precede the Fifth. On the second night a similar reversal was carried out without warning, so the opening chords of the ‘Eroica’ came as a shock to ears that were expecting the brooding introduction to the Fourth. Perhaps Gardiner was following Beethoven’s prefatory instructions in the score of the ‘Eroica’: “This Symphony, being purposely written at greater length than usual, should be played nearer the beginning than the end of a concert, and shortly after an Overture…”.
In an outstanding performance of the Seventh Symphony, Gardiner captured its rhythmic diversity, bringing out both jollity and solemnity. After a fast opening movement he took the Allegretto at a moderate pace, every voice coming through with clarity. The scherzo was very spirited with horns and timpani giving explosive energy to the trio, and the finale was a whirlwind.
There was vivid demonstration as to how innovative the Fifth Symphony was. In the finale, Beethoven – by augmenting the ‘classical’ orchestral complement with piccolo, contrabassoon and three trombones – created an ensemble very close to what soon would become the modern symphony orchestra. (In this performance the same musician played both contrabassoon and piccolo, rising from his chair when playing the latter instrument.) Gardiner imbued the famous four-note motif that opens the Fifth with firepower appropriate to his stated “call to arms”, reflecting the composer’s sympathy with the political ideals of the French Revolution. Gardiner’s rapid tempos were effective in driving the music forward, even in the Andante. The scherzo was brilliant, with powerful attacks, then a suspenseful transition to the gloriously bright C major of the finale. Gardiner gave each of the symphony’s false endings full dramatic effect, making the true ending all the more climactic.
The performance of the ‘Eroica’ took much of its character from the instruments themselves – not only the horns, which figure prominently, but also the timpani’s persistent, incisive and often-syncopated beats in the opening Allegro and the woodwinds’ introduction of a mysterious new theme in mid-movement. The ‘Marcia funèbre’ was appropriately solemn, building to its fugal centerpiece above which horns sang out nobly, and finally dying away gently. The scherzo was played nimbly and delicately, the horns of the trio resembling a hunting party. Gardiner plunged headlong into the finale, bringing a distinct character and mood to each of the contrasting Variations on the ‘Prometheus’ theme (as previously used in the ballet score and in the for-piano Eroica Variations), including a marvelously played fugato. Near the movement’s end, Gardiner seemed to go almost limp as flutes, bassoons and strings softly played disconnected two-note figures, but he came back to life with vigor as he attacked the coda, the entire orchestra surging, to a dramatic finish.
Gardiner concluded the ORR’s New York visit with a stirring rendition of the Fourth Symphony, which Beethoven composed concurrently with the Fifth. After the moody introduction and an elegantly phrased transition, Gardiner brought a fiery spirit to the Allegro, yet did not sacrifice attention to detail. The Adagio is the most lyrical movement in any of these four symphonies. It was performed lovingly with fine contributions from the second violins, beautiful clarinet solos, and a softly pulsing heartbeat from timpani. The energetic scherzo was twice contrasted by a delicate trio featuring winds, horns and first violins, a five-part structure (ABABA) that Beethoven would use again in the Seventh Symphony. It was then off to the races with the finale, Gardiner setting a blistering pace that challenged the dexterity of the string-players as well as the principal bassoonist, with all up to the task. An exhilarating close, but the highpoint remained the conclusion of the Fifth Symphony.