United States ORR Beethoven Cycle : Lucy Crowe (soprano), Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor). Carnegie Hall, New York, 19.2.2020. (RP)
Beethoven – The Creatures of Prometheus, Act 1 (Overture, Introduction, Nos.1, 2, 3), Act II (No.16); Ah! perfido! Op.54; Symphony No.1 in C major Op.21; Leonore Overture No.1 Op.138; Leonore Op.72, Act II No.11 ‘Ach, brich noch nicht, du mattes Herz!’ – ‘Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern’
To mark the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, Carnegie Hall is presenting an expansive, if not exhaustive, exploration of the music of a composer who has assumed almost godlike stature in Western culture. His complete symphonies alone will be performed there twice this season. Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (ORR) are now in residence for five concerts over the span of six days. Sold-out is plastered across the marquees outside the hall, and it will likely be the same when Yannick Nézet-Séguin and The Philadelphia Orchestra perform the nine symphonies later in the season.
For the first concert, Gardiner programmed some of Beethoven’s lesser known works from the earlier years of his career in addition to his Symphony No.1. The Creatures of Prometheus is ballet music, and its grace and buoyancy clearly demonstrate why it found favor with the audiences of Beethoven’s day. For modern audiences it doesn’t jive with the Beethoven of myth, but the repeated chords and the roll of the tympani that opened the overture, composed when Beethoven was 30 years old, portended the stylistic, dramatic and emotional leaps that the composer would make over the next 24 years more clearly than any program note could detail.
When audiences and critics heard the First Symphony in 1800, they immediately took note of Beethoven’s departure from norms established by Haydn, who had been his teacher, and, of course, Mozart. Gardiner and the ORR reveled in the peculiarities and liberties that caused consternation to those who were at that premiere in 1800, infusing the music with joy and humor. In the third movement, hardly the graceful minuet that the first audience would have expected, the strings hurled fireballs of sound at the woodwinds, which they parlayed back with nonchalant ease.
The lyrical Beethoven was on display in Leonore Overture No.1, a total departure from the energy, drive and brilliance of its more famous predecessor, Leonore Overture No.3 (it is best to ignore the numbering). In its opening measures, the strings emerged from the depths of their ranges as if searching for daylight, exhibiting the enticing sonorities that period instruments afford. Later, the mellow, molten sound of the ORR’s horns was astonishingly beautiful.
Lucy Crowe’s lyric soprano sounded wonderful, taking on a presence that Carnegie Hall affords special voices such as hers. She began Ah! Perfido! in a state of high dudgeon; the voice was steady, but Crowe gasped for breath as she hurled out the cries of the distraught woman abandoned by her lover. Alternating between the fierce outbursts of anguish were lyrical passages topped by crystal-clear high notes that shimmered above the orchestra.
In the second half of the concert, Crowe returned to sing Leonore’s aria ‘Ach, brich noch nicht, du mattes Herz!’ — ‘Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern’, from the 1805 version of Beethoven’s only opera. The similarities to ‘Abscheulicher! wo eilst du hin?’, which Beethoven composed for a revival in the 1814 version of the opera, are readily apparent, but his earlier effort is more reflective and tender, especially when the fearless woman is expressing her love for Florestan.
The vocal demands of the earlier version, however, are just as great, and Crowe navigated them fearlessly. In both versions of ‘Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern’, Beethoven’s writing for the horns is fiendishly difficult. The rapid scale passages where they played in unison with Crowe were perfectly in tune and flawlessly articulated in an astounding display of virtuosity.
Even though the ORR has been around since 1989, the sonorities still startle those used to performances on modern instruments. It was fascinating to overhear bits of conversation at the back of the hall during the intermission in this regard, especially among younger members of the audience for whom the sounds were new and revelatory
I’m no stranger to historically informed performances, but something took me by surprise on the musicological side of the equation. The lighter textures of the orchestral sound and biting, incisive playing in the livelier passages from The Creatures of Prometheus and Leonore Overture No. 1 evidenced a direct link between Beethoven’s theater music and the operas of Rossini. One expects such energy and brilliance in the music composed by the young Italian composer just a few years later, but hardly the staid, fierce Germanic genius of popular myth. I even detected brief flashes of what would evolve into the Rossini Rocket.
Gardiner and the ORR strive to provide bold new perspectives through their stylistic fidelity and intensity of expression. For someone who values historical context, this concert did just that in a most unexpected manner.