After a shaky Eighth and Ninth, a triumphant choral coda closes Gardiner’s Beethoven week

Tue Feb 25, 2020 at 3:10 pm
Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducted the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and Monteverdi Choir in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 Monday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Is it really possible that Ludwig van Beethoven would have been 250 years old this year?  His music sounds so in-your-face contemporary, especially during the best moments of Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s cycle, just completed, of the nine symphonies with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique at Carnegie Hall.

That series came to a glorious choral conclusion Monday night with the final pages of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a sound splendid enough to almost erase the memory of the often-rough road that led up to it—not just in this symphony but throughout the cycle.

One observer wrote last week that Gardiner and his period-instruments ensemble offered the possibility of “hearing Beethoven’s symphonies the way he might have.” Hearing like a deaf person might not be someone’s first choice, but it was all too true of Monday’s performance of the Symphony No. 8, with its frequent distortions of pitch, rhythm and ensemble.

Beethoven himself was proud of his Eighth, and came stoutly to its defense when people made invidious comparisons between its bucolic mood and the dazzling power of the Seventh. One could imagine him emphasizing his point by launching into the opening pages with a performance like Gardiner’s on Monday, fast and bristling with string attacks, driven by trumpets and hard whacks on timpani.

This approach proved hard to sustain for a whole movement, and the effort to do so pushed the music out of shape, with rushing in the loud passages and sagging intonation in the soft ones.

The brief Allegretto scherzando cracked its jokes gently enough. The sensation of fuzziness in the chirping wind chords and the dancing violins may have been not so much a fault of ensemble as simply the way the older-style instruments “speak.”

Beethoven’s Tempo di Minuetto is definitely a two-left-feet minuet, a pileup of displaced accents in a placid tempo. Lax rhythms in Monday’s performance somewhat obscured the composer’s humor.

The ensemble pulled together for the Allegro vivace finale, forging ahead vigorously and in time, though not resisting the natural tendency to speed up at moments where the prevailing beat shifted from two-to-a-bar to one. It made for a bright, upbeat finish to a somewhat frustrating performance.

The long expressive arc of Beethoven’s Ninth begins in a world gone wrong, with the good and the beautiful menaced by malign forces. If one could have watched Gardiner on Monday with the sound turned off, he seemed to be indicating from the podium all the first movement’s tragic twists of fate, from gentle entreaties to crushing oppression.

Unfortunately, no such drama emerged from the orchestra, which responded to the conductor’s gestures by getting louder and softer, and that’s about it. In music as in the theater, tragedy has a momentum, a feeling of inexorable fate. The orchestra’s playing, hampered by sloppy ensemble and chronically late woodwinds, never achieved that momentum, or the expressive playing that would have sprung from it.

In contrast, the Molto vivace movement was a model of disciplined playing, the fleet tempo steady throughout, the woodwinds on time and in tune, the strings clear and light on their feet. Taking the Presto middle section at Beethoven’s wildly-fast metronome marking led to some blurring in the winds and dropped notes by the horn, but it was worth it to put some momentum behind this sardonic scherzo.

The long Adagio molto e cantabile is a lyrical drama in many scenes, and it opened quite beautifully Monday night, a little heavy on the horns, but melodious and expressive. As the music came to turns in the road, however, no new vistas opened up, and the orchestra just played on and on. One became more aware of a consistent horn-heaviness, of violin themes covered by other parts, of the winds struggling to stay in tune, than of a story unfolding.

Violinists and violists stood up to play the last movement, but that didn’t help the strings phrase together in a rather fuzzy introduction of the Ode to Joy theme. “O friends, not these sounds!” exclaimed bass Matthew Rose, more appropriate than usual under the circumstances. Rose, substituting for Tareq Nazmi, who was prevented from appearing by visa problems, easily filled the hall with his clear, hefty voice and immaculate diction.

In the “military” variation, piccolo and other winds were a bit behind the drums, but tenor Ed Lyon sang out crisply and with gusto. In the solo ensembles, soprano Lucy Crowe floated her curly phrases and high notes sweetly, the personification of benevolent Freude, while contralto Jess Dandy added just the right note of creamy richness to the sound.

In an inspired move, a trombonist stepped out of the orchestra to join the male choristers, adding Gabriel’s horn to their mighty injunction “Seid umschlungen, Millionen.”

How many adjectives would it take to properly praise the Monteverdi Choir?  The 36-member group, formed by Gardiner in 1964, mastered Beethoven’s punishingly high choral writing with pure yet full tone, pinpoint intonation, and the kind of breath support that made the long phrases seem to last forever—and one wished they would.

Soon, however, it was time for the bacchanal of those last few pages, all joining in a beautifully delivered celebration of joy and peace–and of one man, born 250 years ago, who has enriched the lives of so many Millionen.

Carnegie Hall presents the Venice Baroque Orchestra, with leader and violinist Gianpiero Zanocco and mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg, in works of Handel, Vivaldi and others, 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Carnegie’s Zankel Hall.; 212-247-7800.

One Response to “After a shaky Eighth and Ninth, a triumphant choral coda closes Gardiner’s Beethoven week”

  1. Posted Feb 28, 2020 at 11:44 am by Geoffrey

    I heard Gardiner and the orchestra in Beethoven’s 8th and 9th Symphonies last night here in Chicago. I disagree with your comments about “shaky” playing and unsustainable tempi. Here it was FABULOUS. Have you ever played a period instrument, especially one of the winds? Intonation is one of the things that makes them so hard to play. Even in the finest period instrument orchestras or ensembles in the world, there is huge effort put forth to tame and tune the instruments.

    I’m a horn player and know the natural horn quite well. Even the easiest notes in the harmonic series of the key being played (and using the appropriate horn crook) can simply not speak when required, even well warmed up and having practiced for days! Those instruments are like playing modern instruments in extreme turbulence on a plane!

    We have to understand that the timbre will we get from the period instrument ensemble is SO different than anything we’re used to hearing modern orchestras. Personally, I love both…so different yet so satisfactory as a listener.

Leave a Comment


 Subscribe via RSS