Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and Monteverdi Choir‘s performance was not your father’s Beethoven’s Ninth, not even your grandfather’s. It was perhaps your great-great-great grandfather’s. What I mean is that, what was old is new, and while we are all by now accustomed to period instrument performances of Baroque music of the 18th century, what was “revolutionary” was the concert’s approach to Beethoven. Gardiner and his forces lent the same care and research to 19th-century music as Gardiner has to earlier music (heard the 20th November 2012).
Presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County at the Segerstrom Concert Hall, this well crafted “exclusive West Coast two day residency” brought to Southern California two of Beethoven’s late masterworks: the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony. Most of us have heard endless times this symphony, sometimes in mediocre performances. Happily, most recently for me, Gustavo Dudamel’s inaugural concert as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 2009 was quite memorable. However, last Tuesday’s concert was an opportunity to hear this touchstone of Western culture performed as I had never heard it before, and performed passionately and expertly.
I grew up with Gardiner’s then-ground-breaking interpretations of Baroque music. He, alongside a small group of musicians such as Alfred Deller, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, René Jacobs, Christopher Hogwood and William Christie, was in the vanguard of period performance beginning a half century ago. I cut my teeth on his recordings of Handel classics, especially the oratorios recorded with Gardiner’s first two ensembles, the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir. Some two decades ago, Sir John decided to do the same with Classical and early Romantic music, founding the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Period performance of this repertoire is a more recent phenomenon, especially in this country (see my review of the Most Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center).
The concert opened with Beethoven’s rarely performed cantata Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op. 111 (1814-15) for orchestra and chorus; here are no soloists, the chorus is the star. Indeed, the Monteverdi Choir—in spite of the impressive playing of the orchestra—was the star of the entire evening. Established by Gardiner in 1964, the choral group is one of the finest in the world. I will never forget a performance of Handel’s Israel in Egypt at Lincoln Center in the late 1980s. Their musical recreations of Egypt’s plagues of locusts, darkness and finally death were indescribably vivid, filled with dramatic incident, expressivity and color, conveyed with crisp diction and dynamic sensitivity. These same traits were much in evidence over two decades later in this performance. Sir John conducts with complete surety—he knows his ensembles and shapes every moment magisterially. His style—in contrast to Nicholas McGegan, a much loved and influential early music figure here on the West Coast (his ensemble is the Philharmonia Baroque)—is spare, minimal, and to the point, with occasional grand gestures that have immediate effect on the chorus and orchestra. He holds and releases them, in complete command. I was impressed with the lively acoustics of the hall, a perfect match for the orchestra and chorus’ bright, crisp sound.
Gardiner—as is the accepted practice with earlier music—took his tempos at a brisk pace, making for a driven yet rhythmically sensitive and pointed performance. Unfortunately, that made the all-too-brief cantata set to a Goethe text even briefer. I wanted them to play it again.
The whole point to the exercise last Tuesday evening was to listen to the Ninth Symphony in D minor, Op. 125, with completely new ears, and so indeed we did. With the heightened clarity of this period instrument orchestra, Mozart’s influence is quite clear in the first movement. However, the challenge of performing with period instruments is that they don’t have the valves and other refinements of modern instruments and take a lot more effort to control. That said, the absolute raw power they produce more than compensates for the odd bleat, blat and rasp. These are the peculiar beauties of the period ensemble. The downside in this first (fast) Allegro movement was a slight coordination issue, the difficulty these non-mechanized instruments had to move quickly to keep up (in the brass and winds). The strings were uniformly fine, in spite of their “cat gut” strings and period bowing, they played with lightening speed, shaping their luscious, plangent arcs of sound with little to no vibrato. In the closing bars of the Allegro, the textures provided by the flute passages allowed me to hear them as I never had before.
The second movement lived up to its appellation “con vivace” particularly with the timpani—according to reports only late 19th century—but nevertheless providing far more nuanced dynamic contrasts and less reverberation than what we are normally accustomed to. The penultimate movement again amazed with our completely different perception of this very familiar music—a different sound, but the musicality as modern, driving, as ever. To hear the recognizable, heartbreaking yet dance-like theme in the strings with fresh ears was amazing. The overall musicality of the orchestra was extraordinary, despite a wayward horn, evidence of the vicissitudes of using period instruments—these here only once removed from hunting horns!
The fourth, final movement opened with as moody an introduction by the cellos and double basses as, again, ever I heard. Theirs was a springy, vibrant sound, without the usual extravagant vibrato. It was exhilarating, as was British bass Matthew Rose’s electrifying entrance, “O Friends!” The other soloist to stand out was American Michael Spyres’ bright, French-like tenor, easily dealing with Beethoven’s high tessitura. The Monteverdi Choir—it cannot be overstated—performed flawlessly, ecstatically singing Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy. Once again, the precision was remarkable—especially on the word “Kuß” or “kiss” in the phrase “This Kiss for the entire world!” Sir John Eliot Gardiner, his renowned Monteverdi Choir, and his newer 19th-century period instruments orchestra blazed through the final movement.
It was as thrilling a Beethoven’s Ninth as I can recall, in no small part due to the fact that Gardiner took us back to Beethoven’s sound world. He allowed us for a brief moment to experience what that first audience in May of 1824 must have marveled at, what was truly revolutionary about this music: a completely new and dynamic hybrid of symphonic and choral work.