John Eliot Gardiner and Arturo Toscanni: Beethoven Comes First

United StatesUnited States  L.V. Beethoven: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City, 16.11.2011 (SSM)

Beethoven: Overture to Egmont, Op. 84
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67

Sir John Gardiner Conducting Beethoven at Carnegie Hall (C) Julien Jourdes

Midway through Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s elemental performance of Beethoven I had a sense of déja vu. I was experiencing again the extraordinary emotions that I had felt listening to these Beethoven symphonies for the first time. Those recordings by Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra from the 1950s and the symphonies played here are surprisingly similar in style: raw, taut, driven, and at times even frenzied. The timpani were rifle shots, the violins strained to the point of near dissonance, the brass sounded calls for help, and the bass strings rumbled like an imminent earthquake. Yet how different the conductors and the orchestras are: Toscanini, with one foot still in the nineteenth century, was a stern, temperamental and demanding Maestro, bred in the Italian operatic school where the conductor was the unquestioned authority. Gardiner is a product of the early music movement, a scholar and even-tempered conductor who is known mostly for his energetic Bach cantata cycle and revivals of French and English Baroque composers.

Toscanini’s orchestra used modern instruments, revised scores and techniques out of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (not greatly different from the symphony orchestras of today). Gardiner’s orchestras use original (or copies of original) instruments of the period, valveless brass, Baroque tympani and wooden winds. The strings produce minimum vibrato, as do singers and choruses.

What brings these two opposite musicians together is their demand that the composer’s music is what should be performed, his intentions followed to the best of one’s ability. For Toscanini conducting wasn’t an excuse to impose one’s own interpretation on the score. If Beethoven gave metronome markings considerably faster than what would seem plausible, one could assume Beethoven knew better than a conductor how the piece should be played. If, as in early music, the original source has no annotation at all, then a conductor such as Gardiner needs to make his decision based on historical support. Both Toscanini and Gardiner aimed for clarity above all else, a return to a conducting style that allows the audience to clearly distinguish an oboe from a flute, a trumpet from a trombone.

Even more so than Toscanini, Gardiner is able to lead his orchestra from the softest pianissimos to the most chilling fortes. From the redoubtable oboist who was as close to being a soloist as any other member of the orchestra to the fearless trumpeter dependent on his ability to use his mouth and lips instead of his fingers to produce the required notes, every instrumentalist is a virtuoso in his or her own right.

The dominating feature of each piece in this performance was its unrelenting pulse. In some ways, Beethoven’s bass line acted as it would in earlier music, serving as the unremitting ground upon which the main symphonic line is based. There was always a sense of an inexorable moving forward as if slowing down would cause the whole work to collapse. This is not an easy thing to do, and Gardiner accomplished it with great finesse. In doing so he was dancing on the edge of cacophony. One misfired trumpet call or horn volley and these great symphonies would have gone over the edge into bombast. To everyone’s delight this never happened: the audience’s response was as loud as the final notes of the Fifth Symphony.

Stan Metzger