United States ORR Beethoven Cycle : Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor). Carnegie Hall, New York, 20 & 21.2.2020. (RP)
Beethoven – Symphony No.2 in D major Op.21, Symphony No.3 in E-Flat major Op.55 ‘Eroica’, Symphony No.4 in B-flat major Op.60, Symphony No.5 in C minor Op.67
Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique played the orchestral music most associated with the heroic genius of fact and fiction in the second and third concerts of their Carnegie Hall Beethoven cycle. Proceeding in chronological order, each concert paired one of the composer’s lighter, sunnier symphonies with another that celebrated the ultimate triumph of the human spirit. It was the same balance that the composer had struck as he composed them.
Beethoven wrote the Second Symphony as he was becoming increasingly aware that his hearing loss was permanent and incurable, yet there is not a trace of despair in this cheery work. The symphony is clearly rooted in the Classical style of Haydn, his teacher, but it foreshadowed the new path that Beethoven would travel in the future. He, rather than critics and musicologists, said as much. Too often, we hear Beethoven through the words of others. Gardiner and the ORR, however, strive to let the music speak for itself.
In the second movement of Symphony No.2, the ORR’s woodwinds, especially the oboes, created a bouncy, bucolic mood, while the trumpets added an earthiness to the music. Folk music is not something that I generally associate with Beethoven’s symphonies, but listening to the ORR I was transported back in time to a sunny afternoon in late September on Munich’s Odeonsplatz, where I sat drinking beer and listening to folk ensembles perform. Later, Gardiner turned the finale into a delightful romp, his entire body swaying with the music to get even more Schwung from his orchestra. This was fun Beethoven.
Toscanini rejected a hundred years of rumination and speculation over the underlying meaning of the opening measures of the Third Symphony: ‘Some say it is Napoleon, some Hitler, some Mussolini. For me it is simply Allegro con brio’. Gardiner similarly dismisses the focus on Beethoven the man, but maintains that the Third Symphony, as well as the Fifth, reflect the composer’s unswerving belief in the ideals of the French Revolution, a lofty, idealistic vision of a man so often depicted as petty, despairing and irascible.
As they would later in the Fifth, the violin and viola players stood for the Third Symphony, upping the energy level a few notches. And for the first time, the sound of the period instruments transformed the music into a new experience. The prior works that the ORR had performed were more firmly planted in the Classical style, so the sounds, while beguiling, did not jar. With the Third Symphony, Beethoven broke with the past, and we became time-travelers with Gardiner and the ORR. The sounds that they produced were perhaps as novel for us as they were for the people who first heard this music.
Nowhere was the difference more evident than in the second movement where the haunting growls of the contrabasses and the hollow rumblings of the tympani with their skin heads, rather than the synthetic ones on modern instruments, produced a spectral atmosphere of grief. (To me, it brought to mind Shostakovich at his most despondent.) Its equal, but in a completely different mood, was the unbridled excitement of the third movement, with the horns entering in a magnificent muddle of sound (take that as high praise).
Beauty is not an adjective that generally comes to mind when writing about Beethoven’s symphonies, but how else to describe the Fourth, especially the Adagio? Written over several weeks during a particularly idyllic, late-summer escape to the country, the Fourth, perhaps more than any other Beethoven symphony, reveals the composer’s deep connection with nature.
It began with the boisterous playing of strings and flutes bubbling merrily along. The exuberance was kept in check by the measured approach that Gardiner took to its stately melodies. In the second movement, the purity and grace of the clarinet solos imbued the music with poise and elegance, while the third was notable for the precision with which its intricate cross rhythms were played as well as the shape, sweep and flow of the more expansive phrases. In spite of the relentless rhythmic intensity of the final movement, Gardiner and his players injected the music with wit and humor.
The Fifth Symphony was quickly recognized as a masterpiece, although the Third was more popular during Beethoven’s lifetime. A lot of ink has been spilled speculating on whether the opening measures – ‘Fate knocking at the door’ – embodies Beethoven’s despair over his deafness or not, but Gardiner maintains that the symphony has less to do with the composer’s personal struggles than his political ideals.
It was indeed the heroic, almost superhuman Beethoven that was the prevailing mood of this performance, although it was a surprisingly intimate experience. The size of the orchestra and the period instruments were certainly a factor, but the manner in which the players communicated with one another and, by extension, the audience tipped the scales. The musical thrusts that open the symphony were magnificent but terrifying. It was passages like the sublime playing of the violas in the second movement that made the personal connection so real. Beethoven would reach such heights of beauty and profound emotion in the violin solo of the ‘Benedictus’ in the Missa Solemnis.
In the Scherzo, the edgy, earthy sound of string instruments prevailed, especially in the raw, exuberant playing of the cellos and the colorful pizzicati of the violins and violas. The riffs of the traverse flutes lent lightness and a whiff of humor to the triumphant conclusion, but the wow moment was when the woodwind and brass sections stood. At that moment, Gardiner’s interpretational insights resonated most profoundly: this was music of hope, not despair.