Beethoven season continues in London with a period performance of serious calibre

Artsdesk, by Alexandra Coghlan, 10 November 2011
Beethoven Symphonies at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

We all know the question at issue last night at the Young Vic where Hamlet was opening, but down the road in the Queen Elizabeth Hall it was one of applause. Clapping between movements is a well-worn topic; we’ve had editorial, essays, even an RPS lecture devoted to the subject with no resolution in sight. Every year the Proms reminds us of the natural release a good clap can provide after a monumental first movement, and every year we return to our hands-clenched ways afterwards. Last night, witnessing some of the finest Beethoven London has seen in a vintage year for the composer, I can’t have been alone in feeling that fidgety silence was simply not a sufficient response.

With the athletic attack of Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra still fresh in listeners’ ears, John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique were faced with a greater than usual challenge. As Gardiner himself pointed out in his preamble, much has changed since his period band first went head to head with the great symphony orchestras in this repertoire some 15 years ago. The cabals have opened their doors, and the dialogue between the authentic instrument movement and its mainstream symphonic counterpart now sees the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performing Wagner, and an ensemble like the LSO (joined by Gardiner later this season for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) making a cleaner, leaner return to Beethoven and even to the Baroque.

So with Chailly having claimed speed and daredevil drama for his Beethoven cycle, how would Gardiner – ever the musical contrarian – respond? With speed and yet more drama, it seemed. The opener, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, set up with thunderous explicitness the narrative of oppression Gardiner reads through all the symphonies. Here, in the heavy tread of the opening orchestral chords, leaving their imprint in the filmy wind response, we felt not just force but a sense of resistance – a striving against. In the climactic moments the unfinished edges of early brass came into their own, roughing up the martial smugness of an ending whose triumph should only ever be subjunctive.

The textural detail that animated the Egmont (some offbeat double bass observations sent me back to the score) proved even more vivid through the Fourth Symphony that followed, where Gardiner took up the challenge of Berlioz’s river narrative for the first movement Allegro vivace. Rivalling the composer’s talk of geysers and clouds of spray with the physicality of their delivery, the orchestral waters remained clear enough to catch glimpses of the bassoons fussing and fretting beneath the surge. The Adagio saw a superb clarinet solo from Tim Lines, the star of a wind section which also included Jane Gower – victor over Beethoven’s sudden and violent bassoon solo at the start of the recapitulation. Hard at any speed, at Gardiner’s she more than deserved the cheers that greeted her solo bow.

The Seventh Symphony was played as an altogether longer game, reflecting the larger-scale gestures of the work. Little of the broadest humour of the first movement was permitted to blurt through, with Gardiner restraining his forces to build through the Allegretto. While Chailly spent his reserves almost too swiftly in this second movement, it was Gardiner’s refusal to unbend that harnessed the pulsing melancholy of its central motif, which must carry us such an emotional distance. With something of quiet frenzy about this theme however, an ever so slightly more measured tempo might have given it the poise needed to offset the rambunctious Presto.

If humour had been lacking earlier, there was no mistaking the wicked grin of the Presto, nor the outright laughter of the Allegro con brio. Some strikingly non-interventionist conducting from Gardiner saw him give the orchestra their head, reasserting himself at intervals with whole bars of downbeats, each a ferocious stab of cumulative force.

It’s been too long since we’ve heard Gardiner’s orchestra in this, the repertoire with which they made their name. A long time, too, since their benchmark recording. In the new Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus CD we have a rendition of contemporary brilliance, yet for those craving the softer edges of Baroque flutes and rasping brusqueness of early brass there is surely space for a period recording redux from this incomparable group of musicians.