We know what Berlioz thought about Beethoven – he compiled an analytical study of all nine symphonies and in the last concerts he ever conducted, in Russia in 1867-68, he included the Fifth Symphony – but who knows whether the French composer had ever registered on the Grand Old Man’s radar in Vienna? After all, Berlioz was not a child prodigy and, leaving aside an early mass and the incomplete Les Francs-Juges, he only really made the world sit up and take notice with his Symphonie fantastique, three years after Beethoven’s death.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Beethoven and Berlioz make excellent bedfellows or at the very least good stable-companions, for in the two works performed by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique under Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the revolutionary spirit burned with a bright blue flame. Both pieces changed the accepted wisdom of what a classical symphony was all about and both feature a single motif – in the French case an idée fixe – which unifies the whole. Some of the revolutionary elements in Beethoven’s C minor symphony include a first movement coda which is longer than the preceding individual sections, the joining of the final two movements and a pioneering use of trombones in symphonic music. Berlioz casts his phantasmagoria of sound in five movements and makes use of a dazzling array of instruments previously not allowed anywhere near a symphonic band – to wit, cornets, ophicleides, a serpent and harps. One of the reasons for arguing that Beethoven’s Fifth is the most famous symphony ever written is because it has a habit of leaving its imprint on many other creative works, from Howards End to Clockwork Orange and Abilgail’s Party and beyond.

In Gardiner’s hands, Beethoven’s Op.67 became something of a Short Ride in a Fast Machine. The wind, both individually and collectively, floated on a large cushion of air in the cavernous spaces of the Royal Albert Hall; the brass often cut through the textures with an unyielding sharpness; the vibratoless strings, on the other hand, often struggled to hold their own when part of the full ensemble. And surprisingly, the timpanist, embedded amongst the phalanx of upper strings who played standing throughout, produced a muddied sound which detracted from the electrical charges that this instrument can generate in good period performances. That aside, the forward-driven approach, not least in the coda to the finale taken at breakneck speed, emphasised the barnstorming qualities of this great musical warhorse.

If the absence of heft, especially in the string sound, detracted from a sense of majesty in the Beethoven, it was the sheer range of colour and texture which cast an altogether appropriate spell in the Berlioz. This was quality music-making which led the audience into a world of febrile inner imagination. Already in the first movement Gardiner deployed his orchestral palette to mesmerising effect: the chirruping of the flutes, the keening of the oboes, the hooting of the clarinets and the quacking of the bassoons, underpinned by the rasping natural horns and snapping trumpets, all set against the fine lines of silken sound spun by the strings. What was equally notable was the way in which a nervous twitching energy leapt out from the motivic germ-cells. At times we were virtually in a Wagnerian smithy.

Then came the first of three miscalculations in what was otherwise an outstanding realisation of the work. The four harps, which had previously been positioned in pairs at either side of the platform, were brought into place around the conductor’s rostrum, only to be removed and repositioned at the end of the second movement. Each rearrangement of the platform took up a minute of time which, together with a similarly long pause after the “Scène aux champs”, meant that the flow of the piece was unnecessarily compromised. I have never attended a live performance before in which the recorded sound of a bell in the final movement was superimposed on the orchestral sound in the finale. Given Gardiner’s pointillistic approach to texture earlier in the symphony and his scrupulous care over transparency, the long reverberation times of a pealing bell diminished the overall clarity.

However, there were so many felicities to cherish, from the beautifully French-sounding timbre of the cornet in “Un Bal”, in which the swirling ballgowns of silk and taffeta were never far from the mind’s eye, through the collective sighs from the strings in the languorous and atmospheric “Scène aux champs” and gentle exhalation of breath from them at its close, to the chattering of skeletons’ teeth in the col legno episode in the finale. And how often are we treated to such careful differentiation of brass sounds, from gently insinuating to menacing, caressing and then cajoling, and finally assaulting the ear? Not very often, as it happens, and this is what made Gardiner’s performance special.