As I walked to this concert by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir, I wondered what might have changed in Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Beethoven in the two decades since he first recorded these symphonies. In the early 1990s the period-instrument movement was at its height, and the shock of the new (in the guise of the old) drew dividing lines between those who insisted that Beethoven needed to be played with original instruments at the composer’s set speeds, and those who believed in the importance of tradition. Now the differences seem less stark, as period orchestras have become technically more proficient and mainstream conductors have taken some of the movement’s arguments on board.
So, would Gardiner’s Ninth – arguably the most radical of all his early interpretations – have mellowed? No. Not a chance.
If anything the first movement has become even more brutal. This was no vast outpouring of mystical tension, no giant introduction needing desperately to be resolved. This was violence, plain and simple, the whole movement taken at an unrelentingly savage speed. Indeed, the whole thing was over in a mite less than twelve minutes, a good five (!) minutes faster than Daniel Barenboim (the last conductor I heard in this symphony). Gardiner focused less on symphonic development than on attack, on rhythmic continuities, and on the unabating march of timpani. Good as the ORR are, this was too much for them. It wasn’t a matter of details being lost: at these speeds notes simply didn’t have time to come out of the woodwinds, and ensemble verged on disintegration. Perhaps that was the interpretative point. Yet the recapitulation shocked more than I have ever heard. Hard, febrile timpani thwacked; the trumpets, forward in the sound picture, blasted out the opening theme with barely disguisable intent; strings fizzed away. That extraordinary coda, a corkscrewing vortex of a funeral march, seemed to shiver, crescendoing as it plunged, growing softer as it returned. Here Gardiner reminded us, as his period philosophy more generally does, that this composer’s music is inescapably of its time – and that means revolution, war, and repression.
But is it also of ours? Is its philosophical message still as strong even as the world has changed? That seemed less clear as the symphony progressed. The Scherzo was sedate by comparison with the opening movement, discursive and far more shapely, but again with war on the mind. If it never quite settled on a tempo, Gardiner revelled in its accents, conducting less in one to a bar than one to every three. In the slow movement, which was thankfully leavened by some vibrato in the violins and even the occasional slide of portamento, Gardiner clearly illustrated the dividing lines between variations rather than unfolding the music in one Wagnerian whole. There was no pause for breath or reflection here, as if to say that the violence of the first movement was never going to be transcended by a bit of orchestral beauty. Sadly there were difficulties in the horns – valves were invented for good reason – that only served to underline the restless quality of the movement.
Gardiner staged the finale theatrically. The opening orchestral discussion cast aside the themes from the earlier movements with a shrug. Bass Matthew Rose appeared off to one side for his “O Freunde!” declaration, echoed by the choir’s basses standing alone on the other side of the stage, soon to be joined by the other sections of the choir, upstanding in individual blocks. The piccolo player stood to chirp, the contrabassoon farted merrily, the trombones rasped away. The Monteverdi Choir sang – perfectly, as usual – with a homely, intimate air, whilst the four soloists melded easily.
Had we earned the transcendence so often associated with the finale? No, but, unlike with Barenboim and his predecessors, I’m not sure that was the point for Gardiner. This was earth-bound, deliberately so, not a presentation of something theoretically possible – a time when “all men become brothers” – but one celebrating more realistic earthly joys. It was shorn of politics and philosophy and instead focused on the friendships, the true and loving wives, the kisses and the vines of Schiller’s text. It didn’t so much hope as joke. This was a Ninth in which people laughed; literally, in the case of this audience. Whether that is what we need from Beethoven – especially the Ninth – is another matter.
The Ninth was prefaced by the brief, late cantata Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt, which uses two Goethe poems as panels to describe a ship’s journey. More of the stasis and eerie calm Gardiner drew from his forces here – “Deepest calm lies on the water / Motionless the idle sea” – might have been welcomed in the Ninth, but this was a superb performance of a rarely heard work.