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Beethoven Lean, Mean and Lively

October 16, 1994|Herbert Glass | Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar

A decade ago, no self-respecting musician specializing in historically informed performance, on period instruments, would have been caught dead conducting our traditional symphony orchestras. But then, they wouldn't have been invited to do so.

Conductors once ridiculed as being amateurs at worst, inspired loonies at best, e.g., Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Roger Norrington, John Eliot Gardiner, have gained acceptance to the point where they are embraced by the traditional orchestras--not only as guest conductors but, as in the breakthrough instance of Gardiner, in the chief conductor's job.

Gardiner's story becomes even more noteworthy when one considers that he inherited the NDR Symphony of Hamburg from one of the last of the German heavyweights, 80-something Gunter Wand. A changing of the guard if ever there was one, and an admission that a tradition and an era had passed, irrevocably.

What Gardiner is likely to accomplish in Hamburg remains to be seen. What prodigies he continues to produce with period forces is strikingly affirmed in a set of the nine Beethoven symphonies (Deutsche Grammophon Archiv 439 900, five CDs). The instrumental ensemble is the 60-odd member Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, a pretentious mouthful, in effect an enlarged version of his English Baroque Soloists.

Gardiner becomes the fifth period-specialist--following Norrington, Harnoncourt, Christopher Hogwood and Roy Goodman--to give us the nine as they presumably sounded when they were new. And, not surprisingly, each of the five editions presents a different take on the way it was.

In a brief, persuasive talk included in the set, Gardiner examines the historical significance of the symphonies, not only in terms of their revolutionary aspects and influence on the future course of music, but their roots in Mozart, Haydn and French composers of the second half of the 18th Century. He also talks about the particular sounds of 18th-Century instruments and the manner in which they convey Beethoven's musical thought.

That the desired sounds of the past are captured, or recaptured, throughout these performances is easy enough to believe. Among the period-instrument sets, this one is by far the best executed (Harnoncourt employs mostly modern instruments, so let's exclude him from consideration here). Gardiner's readings are unfailingly fleet and urgent. The performing scores are clearly based on the best, least cluttered editions available. What emerges is Beethoven straddling stylistic eras, and for the most part it works wonderfully well.

This is Beethoven lean, lithe, at times even plain--as opposed to heavily "interpreted"--with woody woodwinds, piercing brass, rifle-shot timpani and lightweight, but by no means thin-toned strings.

Norrington, in his EMI set with the London Classical Players, conveyed some of the same notions, but when he recorded the nine symphonies nearly a decade ago, his ensemble--indeed, period-performance in general--hadn't reached nearly the high level of proficiency routinely encountered today, on recordings at any rate, and even surpassed by Gardiner's superb band.

The First and Second symphonies here are particularly invigorating in their closely woven textures and taut inflection.

The Ninth Symphony, which has become so heavily freighted with meaning--and, the more meaning, the slower the tempos, the thicker the textures, the more quirkily variable the rhythmic scheme--if anything gains in impact from Gardiner's hard-driving approach.

The "Pastoral" is enchantingly fresh, the ensemble at its most elegantly airy, the pacing quick but relaxed. There is a feeling of sweet intimacy in the "Scene by the Brook," and the storm breaks with the kind of hellish intensity that must have jolted its first listeners, with those tight timpani thunderclaps packing a particular wallop when compared to the sound of the modern instrument. There's an eerie foreshadowing of Berlioz here.

The "Eroica" does not begin promisingly, with Gardiner possibly overemphasizing its relationship to the Classical past and rather self-consciously trying to banish the presence of the Titanic, as opposed to the nervously energetic, Beethoven. The approach does, however, work in the tense coda, which culminates in an explosive climax. The ensuing movement's funereal tread is no less effective for being more tersely inflected here than is usually the case.

In all, Gardiner and his splendidly accomplished and responsive players have made the most convincing recorded case to date for the historically informed approach to Beethoven, a fulfillment in many respects of the promise offered by Norrington's pioneering effort.

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