Switzerland Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano) Tonhalle, Zurich 14.11.2016. (JR)
Brahms – Serenade No.2
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.4
Schubert – Symphony No.5
The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (“ORR”), founded by Sir John Eliot in 1979 is on European Tour and came to Zurich after concerts in Bruges and Paris; still to come are Luxembourg (16.11.), Eindhoven (17.11.) and Amsterdam (19.11.). The raison d’être of the orchestra is, following on from the English Baroque Soloists, to perform works of the 19th and 20th century in an historically correct style.
Trust Sir John Eliot to bring his audiences interesting works. Not a Brahms Symphony but a Serenade, not a usual late Schubert symphony but his Fifth, not the usual instrument for a Beethoven Piano concerto but a Hammerklavier (fortepiano).
Brahms’ Serenades were written before his symphonies and were his first ventures into orchestral writing. Brahms was in his twenties when he wrote his Serenades; Clara Schumann was impressed when she heard it. Brahms scored it for lower strings, so no violins at all, woodwind and brass. It therefore has that heavy feeling so frequent in Brahms but Gardiner highlighted the work’s youthfulness and exuberance. Gardiner, in tails and even without podium towering over his players, swayed to the rhythms (though not as much as the principal pony-tailed oboist).
The slow movement brought Bach to mind, the Quasi Menuetto displayed Haydnesque wit but I also heard echoes of Schumann. The piece ends with the shrill piccolo adding its voice to a joyous conclusion. Gardiner held it all together with his usual crisp precision.
We have become accustomed to the clear sound of the modern piano and that affects our view of the fortepiano (or “Hammerklavier” in German). Gardiner brought Kristian Bezuidenhout, the renowned South African fortepianist, on tour and that gave us a new perspective on Beethoven’s piano concerto (No.4). The instrument on which Bezuidenhout played turned out to be a magnificent walnut instrument (I may well have got my nut wrong) and a copy of the Viennese fortepiano (made by Conrad Graf) which Beethoven himself played. The hammer-heads are made of leather not felt, so the sound is more percussive. It does not have the volume of a modern grand and at times the ORR swamped the sound, you saw the soloist’s hands move but heard no sound. Bezuidenhout’s nimble finger-work was a marvel, in his first movement Cadenza you could have heard a pin drop (though sadly we did hear the whine of a hearing aid).
Gardiner was insightful in the slow movement, contrasting the almost severe orchestral passages with the delicate passages for the soloist. Gardiner took the Rondo at a fast speed, hard timpani giving the movement a very period feel. Bezuidenhout rewarded us with a calming encore, more Beethoven, the Largo from Sonata Op.10 No.3.
And then came the surprise of the evening: for the second half, Gardiner had his orchestra (barring the cellos and double-basses) stand throughout, having removed their chairs. I asked Sir John Eliot about this after the concert, after he had finished signing CDs and his erudite book on Bach (just released in German); he told me that orchestras did stand and this practice was common well into the 20th century. Mendelssohn always had the Gewandhaus Orchestra stand, and Gardiner repeats this practice when he conducts the Gewandhaus, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and others. The major advantage, according to Gardiner, is that the players play more like soloists, removing the chairs means they can stand closer to each other and can listen better.
Yet again, Gardiner was full of gusto in the faster movements and grace in the slow movement. There was muscle in the strings in the lively Menuetto, another advantage of standing I suspect. The final Allegro vivace, with rasping valve-less horns to the fore, brought this entertaining symphony (written when the composer was only 19 years old) and this quality performance from Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the ORR to a close.