Beethoven: Alive At 250, Or Frozen In A Glass Case?

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John Eliot Gardiner led his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in the opening performance of a Beethoven immersion at Chicago’s Harris Theater. (Kyle Flubacker photos)

CHICAGO – The Beethoven symphonies arrived here Feb. 27 for a thorough mulling in this 250th-anniversary year, and not for the first time this season. Halfway through Riccardo Muti’s season-long cycle with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique blew in with John Eliot Gardiner at the helm for a five-concert Beethoven blitz that began at the cycle’s end, with the Eighth and Ninth symphonies.

Blitz was surely the word for Gardiner’s fleet spin through the classically retro Eighth and the transcendental Ninth alike. If there was any commonality between the Gardiner-ORR and the Muti-CSO performances – I had just heard the latter’s Second and Fifth symphonies a few nights earlier – it was in the two conductors’ penchant for brisk tempos. That said, Gardiner favored alacrity even where other conductors might invoke a more modern sense of restraint, as in the Adagio molto e cantabile, that radiant preamble to the choral finale of the Ninth Symphony.

Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir and soloists joined the orchestra in the Ninth Symphony.

Which brings us to the crux of Gardiner’s Beethoven and indeed to the raison d’etre of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, created by Gardiner in 1989 as a voice for period authenticity. That now well-worked idea, call it authenticity or historically informed performance, fairly crackled in the air during the ORR’s vibrato-free excursions across the jocular Eighth and its aspiring successor.

The question that presented itself to my mind was whether we were listening to Beethoven at 250 – that is, as his music has endured and evolved even as the times, culture, and technology have evolved – or Beethoven in a glass case, frozen in someone’s notion of his time, the music still in its distant purity, unretouched and untainted.

When the ORR’s use of period-style instruments is combined with a complete absence of vibrato, incisive articulation, and generally scurrying tempos, the effect is much like hearing Bach played on a harpsichord as opposed to a modern piano. It is a different aesthetic and emotional experience, still novel even at this late date in the authenticity movement, and I suspect highly problematic for many listeners – perhaps more fascinating than compelling. (I will acknowledge right here that the stormy ovation after the Ninth Symphony by nearly 1,500 listeners at the Harris Theater militated against my point.)

Gardiner pushed through the Eighth Symphony with headlong determination.

That exuberant reception notwithstanding, I’m not so sure Beethoven’s best intentions were in fact conveyed. I’m fairly certain that requiring the string players to stand through the Eighth Symphony did not contribute to a more accurate picture of the work; I wondered whether the musicians, who had presented the cycle at Carnegie Hall just days before and in Barcelona not long before that, might be tired. They sounded pressed and a little unstable at Gardiner’s whipped-up tempos.

Like the Seventh Symphony – and like Brahms’ Third, for that matter – the ever-buoyant Eighth presents the conductor with two middle movements of similar bearing that require distinction. Here, Gardiner dispatched the quasi-scherzo of the second movement and the ensuing minuet with much the same headlong determination. While the wit and brio of the outer movements came through, I listened in vain for subtlety or elegance in those central stanzas. I did not find luster or shimmering sonorous beauty.

The Ninth Symphony made, all told, a more convincing impression. Gardiner allowed his violins and violas to sit through the first three movements, then took a long enough pause to remove their chairs and get them back on their feet for the finale. No doubt history was on his side in this bizarre gambit. (There were also time-outs for re-tuning after the first and second movements.)

The Ninth’s sprawling and harmonically discursive opening movement, a challenge worthy of any orchestra or conductor, scarcely rose above a sort of abstract remoteness as the orchestra scrambled to maintain Gardiner’s driving tempo. But the scherzo – this one a true and urgent scherzo – shone like nothing else in the night. The interplay of strings with winds and brass imparted an aura of virtuosity that was missing in the Eighth Symphony. In the Adagio of the Ninth, one might have wished for a more lyrical line, for a touch less spirit and a bit more spirituality, but still the orchestra brought warmth to its playing.

The Monteverdi Choir came with the music in their heads and no scores in hand.

As choristers for the finale’s “Ode to Joy,” Gardiner brought along his superb Monteverdi Choir, which sounded marvelous and came very well prepared. It was not insignificant that the 36 singers appeared without scores. The excellent soloists were soprano Lucy Crowe, contralto Jess Dandy, tenor Ed Lyon, and bass Matthew Rose.

Typically, little more than a heartbeat separates the Adagio’s quiet conclusion from the finale’s opening burst. But here, all the housekeeping and re-tuning virtually isolated the last movement from the rest of the symphony. Once underway, however, the music surged, variation upon variation, the tempos lively, the esprit charged. It was a joyful revelry, indeed, an authentic rouser, certified by a sea of listeners now become a chorus of approval.

Lawrence B. Johnson, editor of the performing arts web magazine Chicago On the Aisle, was for many years music critic for The Detroit News and has written for The New York Times as well as several music magazines.