Gardiner vs Chailly in Beethoven: Too Close to Call

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 9.11.2011 (Gdn)

Beethoven: Egmont Overture
: Symphony No.4
: Symphony No.7

The glorious, frenetic sounds of Chailly’s Beethoven last week still rang in our ears as we entered the Queen Elizabeth Hall, anticipating a very different take on the same music. Gardiner was well aware of the coincidence, and in his usual friendly chat with the audience, assured us that the two of them aren’t as different as we might have thought. His argument was that the lively, dancing textures that Chailly now draws from the Gewandhaus are only possible because of the influence of the period performance movement on mainstream orchestras. The ‘two spheres’ of orchestral playing, he concluded, had converged, with all aesthetic dogmas overcome.

Had that speech preceded a performance of business-as-usual period Beethoven it would have seemed staggeringly arrogant, with Gardiner taking personal credit for a wholesale revision of Beethoven performance. But it was clear from these two symphonies that he also draws influence from modern instrument performance practice for his period instrument readings.

He’s not the first to try to bridge the gap from the period instrument side, but he might just be the most successful. The OAE have tried it, but their approach is to hire conductors from mainstream orchestras, Zinman from Zurich and Jurowski from the LPO, in the hope that they can make the excitement and drama rub off on the period ensemble. That rarely works, because these instruments need specialist leadership. They need a conductor who knows about the particular tuning and balance problems they face.

Gardiner, of course, is just that man, and he has come up with a variety of strategies to make his Beethoven as muscular and as dramatic as (almost) anybody’s. A small string section playing without vibrato is never going to manage the same quantity of sound as a symphony orchestra. But by getting them to use every millimetre of the bow, they can certainly compete. The accuracy of their intonation also helps beef up the sound. And by taking the quiet dynamics down almost to silence, the contrasts can be emphasised in just the same way as in Chailly’s readings. The Italian maestro has been taking things very fast with his Beethoven symphonies recently, and Gardiner doesn’t go any faster. So they are closely matched in tempo and in the precision of their orchestras.

The main difference comes in the phrasing and the note lengths. Gardiner is much stricter about both. He won’t let any notes linger beyond their notated length, even at the ends of movements. And his phrases are always tightly structured, and sometimes feel clipped. That makes the fast tempos seem all the faster. It doesn’t make the performance any more pedantic, but it certainly locates the symphonies squarely in the Classical rather than the Romantic era.

The concert got off to a shaky start with the Egmont Overture. It had all the darkness and drama you could want, but the orchestra struggled with a number of balance problems. The bottom end of the string section was almost inaudible when they took up the melody, and there were some very strange sounds coming from the trumpets and the front row of woodwinds.

Thankfully, all these problems (with the possible exception of the trumpets) were resolved by the time the Fourth Symphony began. Gardiner’s gentlemanly demeanour was no obstacle to some real passion here. And the orchestra had obviously rehearsed the two symphonies hard, perhaps to the detriment of the overture.

Special mention should go to the horns, who are kept busy in both symphonies, and who make sure you could not mistake this for a modern instrument orchestra. There were some lovely fruity notes from them, and from the bassoons too. The fragile, plaintive sound of the clarinets was also a delight. And the early 19th century oboes, clearly distinct in their sound even from the baroque instruments we now associate with Bach, also served to specify the era of this music.

The ensemble of the string section was excellent. It meant that Gardiner could ramp up both the tempo and the volume to bring a real sense of drama to the two finales. The last movement of the Seventh was particularly energised. He set out (attacca from the scherzo) at quite a lick, and didn’t let the pace drop once until the final chord. It was quite a ride, and I couldn’t help thinking that he’d had beaten Chailly at his own game.


Gavin Dixon