LSO/Gardiner – Beethoven Symphony Cycle (1)

Beethoven
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36
Overture – Leonore No.2
Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir John Eliot Gardiner


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 22 January, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Sir John Eliot GardinerThe LSO’s latest Beethoven symphony cycle began with this concert and will continue in the Barbican Hall on 7 February with the ‘Eroica’. In the meantime Sir John Eliot and the LSO are trawling these symphonies through Europe and will champion the other six over next season and the following one.

As might be expected, Gardiner’s approach is ‘historically informed’, and while the uniform of non-vibrato strings and pinched-tone horns does beckon thoughts of greater variety, then we already have this with the ‘modern’ symphony orchestra – and to relish this would be to miss the point of what musicians like Gardiner seek to do. Yet, this is also a restricted view of this great music. Certainly, the odd uncertainty aside, the LSO played with enormous ‘impersonation’, commitment and drive. The latter quality was a feature of the fast movements – splendidly so in the first movement of Symphony No.2, less so in the finale, which was fast enough to just get the notes in place but too quick to do anything meaningful with them. But, the overall sound that ‘historical parameters’ place was enough to make even the exposition repeat of Symphony 2’s first movement to be something unwelcome!

Ludvig van Beethoven in a portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820Moreover, there were two serious miscalculations. One is using ‘just’ five double basses – which do not bring enough foundation even with reduced string numbers (12 first violins). The other is the timpani: cannon-shot replicas certainly have their place in Beethoven and some ‘solos’ were gratifyingly surprising, just as clarity in pianissimos was revealing, but full-out playing in tuttis was often-obliterating of other details and also gratuitously overpowering. Come the Eighth Symphony, the effect had become boorishly predictable and the performance itself was lacking in humour – make a rit on the final bars of the first movement, as Gardiner did, and Beethoven’s ‘unmarked’ joke is lost. The Minuet flowed delightfully though, as had the courtly fancy of No.2’s example, and Gardiner’s repeating of the outer sections second time round makes sense.

These were more flexible performances than might be supposed. The Larghetto of Symphony No.2 was unexpectedly slow, very beguiling, with plenty of dynamic and character changes – from frisky to shadowy – and the symphony’s slow introduction was expansive if occasionally effete. The concert’s highlight was the overture – one of the four associated with “Fidelio” and more a tone poem, hence its mid-programme placing – which was given with real tension (that carried through well-timed prolonged silence) and enjoyed dramatic cut and thrust. I am though still trying to work out why principal trumpet Rod Franks, who dispensed the off-stage interjections (with aplomb … and on a trumpet) was carrying a trombone when he took his bow! Ein Musikalischer Spass! (K522.)

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