Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 9 November, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
In an off-the-cuff talk made between the Overture and the Fourth Symphony, Sir John Eliot Gardiner mused on how attitudes to Beethoven have changed, and changed quite recently. There has been no lack of opportunities to hear the symphonies, but although audiences had grown up with them, they didn’t really know them. They were the “meat and two veg” (Sir John Eliot’s words) of the concert repertoire and could be taken for granted as a fact of musical life, but they had become too separated from the historic and aesthetic values in which they were created. The period-instrument revival swept these assumptions aside and made a point, often aggressively, of pinning our ears back. The results, though, have often been revelatory – especially in Beethoven’s symphonies, assertively public music with a lot of post-French Revolution baggage. The process of putting these lofty aristocratic works through an authentic-style, lean-and-mean regime may have been intended to take them back to performance basics, but the result has been also to make them fiercely contemporary.
Surprisingly, this was the first time in fifteen years that the 22-year-old Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique has performed any Beethoven symphonies, and, for London audiences, this concert came very much in the wake of the recent concerts of all nine by one of the two orchestras (the Leipzig Gewandhaus; the other was the Paris Conservatoire) to have played them during Beethoven’s lifetime. Sir JEG referred to the cross-pollinating relationship between traditional and period orchestras, singling out the Leipzig Gewandhaus and the LSO, although I’d have thought that the traffic of stylistic views was predominantly one way.
Beethoven’s Revolutionary and Romantic stance was obvious from the start in a flagrantly theatrical performance of the Overture to Egmont, and like that to Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream music, it told you in a few minutes the salient details of a long play. In his talk Sir JEG got the orchestra to demonstrate (from the first movement’s reprise) the elemental force that Beethoven could deploy to such devastating effect, just in case it didn’t sink in from the symphony as a whole, and did raise the suspicion that the music was being passed through the highest-drama filter. It was very brilliant and thrilling – especially so, bearing in mind the New Europe of the early-nineteenth-century had a lot to be brilliant and thrilled about – but it did sometimes sound relentless. Tempos were generally fast, although the Adagio of the introduction didn’t bear much relation to the Adagio that is the slow movement, which did not hang about, and didn’t flag up the contrast between the hymn-like main melody and the military interpolations. Similarly the finale (Allegro ma non troppo) would have been reckless but for the superb playing.
The same high-octane hyper-expressivity permeated every bar of the Seventh Symphony, the opening timpani whacks setting the tone of Gardiner’s HD approach. The Allegretto retreated just enough for Beethoven’s trudge towards light to make its point, but in general it was the rhythmic impulse that mattered, delivered with explosive precision. The ORR was excellent, the string players – when they had the chance – seeming to produce any amount of colour and weight from just one bow stroke, the woodwind performing with the artless directness of a serenade band, the horns delivering thrills and a few spills with their raunchy, volatile sound. This was Beethoven at his most risky and physical; it sounded near the edge; the ensemble was taut and lithe, the orchestration jumping out at you. All I’ve got to work out now is how to justify a preference to hear Beethoven’s piano music on a modern, state-of-the-art concert grand.