With a playing time of just 25 minutes, Beethovens First Symphony makes an excellent pairing for the Ninth Symphony, the combination of the two works highlighting the composers development of the symphony over nearly a quarter of a century.
As with his previous Beethoven performances with the London Symphony Orchestra, John Eliot Gardiner adopts a number of period performance practices, notably swift tempi, minimal string vibrato and timpani played with hard sticks. However, he also makes use of modern horns and trumpets, and deploys a relatively generous string section involving 12 first violins. This is in fact just two short of the number used by Herbert von Karajan in his filmed Beethoven cycle from the early 1970s. (Unlike Karajan, however, Gardiner doesnt double the woodwinds.)
Gardiners anachronistic approach is presumably intended to allow Beethovens symphonies to be enjoyed in a large concert hall whilst maintaining the zest and individuality that the composer intended. In practice, however, the performance of the First Symphony featured a hard, brittle sound that was uninvolving in the first movement and marred by unnecessarily loud trumpets and timpani in the finale. The Andante brought clear, sharply etched textures but little warmth, while the Menuetto was metronomic and charmless. Gardiners fast tempi brought deft playing from the orchestra but allowed little room for expressiveness or individuality.
The performance of the Ninth Symphony had similar issues. The first movement was fast paced but lacked inner tension, and although Gardiner highlighted the novelty of the orchestral texture, the timpani were again too loud and the stopped horns seemed more Wagner than Beethoven. The Scherzo and Adagio were both well played but failed to convey much depth of feeling.
The finale brought an account of the Ode to Joy melody that was well shaped on its initial appearance but soon became over dominated by the trumpets and timpani. The 36 singers of the Monteverdi Choir were a welcome addition to the balance, generating a surprisingly high volume given their modest numbers. Among the soloists, bass-baritone Vuyani Mlinde and soprano Rebecca Evans made the strongest impression. However, the placing of the soloists behind the orchestra made it difficult to hear the contributions of Michael Spyres and mezzo soprano Wilke te Brummelstroete. Despite reaching an energetic conclusion, the development of the finale lacked mystery and exhilaration. Given the excellence of some of Gardiners recorded Beethoven, this was a disappointment all round.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk