Gardiner’s Beethoven continues to enthrall

SwitzerlandSwitzerland   Beethoven and Mozart Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), Chiara Skerath (soprano), Tonhalle, Zurich    26.11.2013 (JR)


Beethoven: Symphony No. 2
Mozart: “Ah, lo previdi!”, “Ah, t’invola”, “Deh, non varcar” Recitative, aria and cavatina for soprano and orchestra
Beethoven: Symphony No. 8

John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique continue to tour with their readings of the Beethoven symphonies and now it was Switzerland’s turn to hear them in Berne, Lucerne, Geneva and Zurich. For an audience weaned on David Zinman’s more traditional and weighty non-period interpretations with the Tonhalle Orchestra, these performances must have come as rather a shock, albeit a most pleasant one – unless, that is, if the listener had been fortunate to become accustomed to the style from the highly acclaimed boxed set issued in the mid 1990s. Period instrument performances are still somewhat of a rarity in Switzerland, so Gardiner and his forces were a very welcome sight and a breath of fresh and authenticke air.

The orchestra, French in name but mainly British in constitution, was formed by Sir John to take on works which are too “late” for his other orchestra, the English Baroque Soloists – both have close collaborations with the Monteverdi Choir. Interestingly, and Vienna Philharmonic take note, the women easily outnumber the men.

Gardiner seems to have had a dilemma deciding whether to play the Second Symphony or the Eighth Symphony first; the programme and posters placed the Eighth first, but an announcement from the organizer told us that, fear not, the works were unchanged but their order would now be reversed – the right decision musically, in my view.

The concert revealed the individualities of period instrument performances, rustic woodwind, some slightly awkward brass notes, unpolished natural strings – but there are the immeasurable gains of vibrancy, incisive timpani and of course authenticity, especially in these invigorating readings by Gardiner. I did spot some use of vibrato, so perhaps Gardiner is not as insistent on this as, say, Roger Norrington.

We started with the infrequently heard Second Symphony, The first movement really only came to life after the slow introduction, when Gardiner revelled in the violin flourishes which pepper this enthralling movement. Tempi were uniformly fast. Viennese charm oozed into the Larghetto; the Scherzo was jaunty, no opportunities were ever taken to linger. The orchestra scampered dutifully to the end, following their maestro’s every energetic direction, making a fine case for this symphony which deserves more outings than it gets.

Part of sponsor Migros’ cultural brief is to promote young Swiss talent. This concert featured young Swiss soprano Chiara Skerath singing Mozart’s recitative, aria and cavatina “Ah, lo previdi!”, an ideal showcase for her charming voice, firm in all registers and full of character.  I am sure we will hear more of her in future; she was a Flower Maiden in Christian Thielemann’s Parsifal at the Salzburg Festival but future engagements include performances at the opera houses of Liège, Besancon, Bordeaux and Avignon. Only the principal oboe provided stiff and worthy competition for the audience’s warm reception.

The explosive start of the Eighth Symphony confirmed that Gardiner had made the right choice to finish the concert with this fine work. Each movement enthralled, and once more the oboes were often the centre of attention, keeping the pulse beautifully in the Allegretto Scherzando. The Minuet was taken fast and the effervescent Allegro Vivace brought the concert to a satisfying close.


John Rhodes

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