Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO/Gardiner @ Barbican Hall, London

17 February 2009

Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Beethoven Cycle with the LSO delivers freshly-minted, exhilarating and often hair-raising performances of the 4th and 7th symphonies.

Any Classic FM aficionados expecting easy-listening Beethoven were in for the shock of their lives.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the LSO are taking a somewhat leisurely meander through Beethoven’s entire symphonic output, and by that I mean that they started last season, and won’t complete the journey until 2010. Leisurely is not an adjective that you’d use when trying to describe Gardiner’s way with the music, however.

For many listeners his interpretations are falling on deaf ears (no pun intended), but for anyone prepared to listen without preconceived ideas of how Beethoven should sound, they afford a unique and revelatory glimpse into the genius of Beethoven – uncompromising, innovative and bold. Beethoven is discordant, his orchestral textures craggy, yet for generations all these perceived blemishes were ironed out in favour of blandness. And whilst no one can deny the luxuriant opulence of Herbert von Karajan’s Beethoven, it’s a far cry from what the composer intended.

Without a period orchestra at his disposal Gardiner has taken a mix ‘n’ match approach which is not without its pitfalls. His decision to use modern horns and trumpets is questionable (Mackerras uses valveless horns and trumpets for his Beethoven with the Philharmonia) especially when deployed in tandem with vibrato-less strings alongside modern timpani hit with wooden sticks. In many ways it’s a schizophrenic approach, which at times upsets the balance, but it certainly makes you sit up and take notice.

The 4th Symphony is often considered the poor relation to the remainder of Beethoven’s symphonic output, an accusation which I’ve never been able to fathom. Any notions that it was somehow inferior were surely laid to rest by this invigorating, exceptionally well-played and realised performance. From the tentative, pianissimo openings Gardiner kept a tight grip on the tension until releasing it with the exuberant start of the Allegro vivace which with its angular phrasing and playfulness sped along at a heady but effervescent pace. There was the customary ignorant applause from a handful of people at the close of the movement, ruining an otherwise thought-provoking and exciting reading of this symphony.

After the interval we were treated to as invigorating and illuminating a performance of the 7th as I’ve heard in the concert hall. The build up in the slow introduction was expertly handled, all the syncopated rhythms were given an extra punch and when the main theme of the vivace entered the playing was infectious, joyous, generously phrased and faultlessly played. To avoid allowing the stupid clappers their moment of embarrassment Gardiner employed a cunning luftpause, at the end of the first movement, leading the orchestra straight into the Allegretto. This had wonderful gravitas, with plenty of sensuous string playing.

The third and fourth movements were a real white-knuckle roller coaster of a ride. I’ve never heard either taken at such a lick but despite this there was no fudging of orchestral colour and the players maintained a white-hot intensity of performance throughout. The evening began with a rare outing for the composer’s Namensfeier Overture, which was played as expertly as the rest of the concert. Gardiner’s Beethoven may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I can’t remember leaving a Beethoven concert feeling so exhilarated, elated and thrilled.

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