Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1811-12) [39:10]
Symphony No 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1804-08) [33:11]
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live, 16 November 2011, Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage, Carnegie Hall, New York City
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG 717 [72:21]
Sir John Eliot Gardiner recorded a complete Beethoven symphony cycle with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in the early 1990s. However, those were studio recordings and, to the best of my knowledge, only the Ninth from that cycle is available as a single release though currently you can buy the complete cycle as a five-disc set at a pretty modest price (DG 4778643). These performances of the Fifth and Seventh symphonies were broadcast by radio station WQXR and it’s their recording that SDG have now issued.
These are thrusting, dynamic performances and I suspect that some, especially those who have an aversion to the sound of period instruments, will dislike them. With one caveat, which I’ll come to shortly, I find them stimulating and bracing.
The Seventh sounds as if it opens untidily in that each of the four forte string chords in the first seven bars is slightly spread. This doesn’t happen on Gardiner’s studio recording but since it happens here each time the strings play these chords it may well be a deliberate effect; if it’s not then it’s one of the very few instances of any fallibility in the playing of either symphony. There’s a real sense of anticipation and purpose in the introduction and the astringency of the wind instruments is ear-catching. The vivace, when it arrives, is full of life and vigour and at cue B (4:22) the horns sound brazenly jubilant, as they do each time they play this particular figure. The exposition repeat is taken - every repeat is observed in both symphonies - and in the development section the music really surges along; Gardiner imparts exuberance and drive. My one slight regret is that the string bass line isn’t a bit more pronounced both here and elsewhere on the disc - it’s much more prominent in his studio recordings. I notice that Gardiner employs the same number of string payers as he did for the studio recordings so the fact that the bass line isn’t quite as pronounced here may be an interpretative decision by the conductor or it may be to do with the acoustic of Carnegie Hall and WQXR’s recording. All that said, this difference between the two recordings didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the newcomer.
In the second movement Gardiner adopts a good, flowing tempo; it can sometimes seem a bit of a trudge but not in his hands. Apart from anything else this means that the dolce lyrical sections just flow seamlessly out of the music that has preceded them. I admired the work of the ORR’s wind section in this movement. The scherzo really goes at a lick; this is a genuine presto and it’s exhilarating. The playing here is very agile and the players use dynamics and accents to excellent effect.
Gardiner launches into the finale with scarcely a moment’s hesitation. His reading of this movement has marvellous impetus and drive. The horns make another telling contribution in this movement, as does the timpanist who plays with hard sticks. The pace is fast and furious, though it’s not relentless: on the admittedly rare occasions when Beethoven relaxes momentarily, so does Gardiner. The trumpets cut through nicely when they’re supposed to do without ever being too dominant. All in all, this reading of the finale is something of a tour de force. In conception and pace it’s pretty similar to Carlos Kleiber’s white-hot VPO recording (DG, 1976); indeed, it’s perhaps a fraction quicker and the greater leanness of the ORR’s sound makes their playing seem even more vital than that of the Kleiber-inspired VPO. By comparison Gardiner’s earlier recording, despite its merits, sounds a little tame: the pace is steadier for one thing. Despite observing every repeat in this New York performance, Gardiner’s energy is such that the movement seems to be over in a flash; it’s tremendously exciting and sets the seal on an invigorating account of the symphony. As usual with SDG recordings, there is no applause.
With the Fifth we come to the caveat which I mentioned near the start of this review. For me the problem lies in Gardiner’s pacing of the second movement. I was never comfortable with this in his studio recording and his view hasn’t altered. Admittedly the marking is Andante con moto but there’s too much “moto” for my taste. The start of the movement sounds jaunty but where I feel the swift pacing becomes a real problem is sixteen bars before Cue C (track 6, 3:30) where the violas have a running figure in demi-semiquavers, and even more so when the violins take this up a few bars later. It all sounds too fleet and at Cue C itself the music just sounds breathless. No wonder Gardiner gets through the movement in 8:36. By contrast Carlos Kleiber, in his great VPO recording (DG1975), seems to me to set a much more judicious tempo at which he can impart a sense of repose in the lyrical stretches and yet achieve grandeur in the louder passages: he takes 10:00.
Otherwise, there’s a great deal to admire in Gardiner’s reading of the symphony. The first movement is fast, urgent and unsettling. The movement fairly races by and if you like Klemperer-like weight then probably this is not for you, though the drive behind the music making means that the reading sounds to me just as trenchant, though in a different way, to those by conductors like Klemperer who adopt a more rugged approach. And we should be clear: though the music is played very speedily there’s no skating over Beethoven’s drama and argument.
I also like Gardiner’s way with the third movement. The period celli and basses produce a properly spectral sound and throughout this movement the ORR excels in the use of dynamic contrasts and accents, as they did in the scherzo of the Seventh. The ghostly transition to the finale is very well done, achieving a splendid feeling of suspense so that the start of the finale itself is a truly joyous outburst. We are treated to a superbly vital performance of the finale - I love the incisive contributions of the trumpets and the timpanist. My only slight regret is that I didn’t find it easy to pick out the contrabassoon nor, until the very end, the piccolo. I’m sure the New York audience must have found this performance to be a tremendous experience. As is usual with SDG the booklet contains comments by some of the participating musicians and it’s evident that they felt there was something special about this concert.
SDG’s documentation is, as usual, very good, including an interesting essay by Stephen Johnson, who is always worth hearing or, in this case, reading. One very small point: the track timings are slightly wrong - in both cases the length of the finale is overstated. I’ve shown in the header to this review what I believe to be the correct times. The recorded sound is good, despite my slight cavil about the string bass presence. The engineers have achieved great clarity and thanks to them - and to Gardiner and his players - all the orchestral parts register with clarity.
If you already have Gardiner’s studio recordings you’ll find that there isn’t much interpretative difference between the performances in that set and these newcomers, except that I think the later account of the finale of the Seventh is more exciting because it’s faster and leaner. However, even if you have the earlier recordings I think this new disc, with the added electricity of live performance, is an important appendix to the DG cycle. And if you’ve not previously sampled Gardiner’s characteristically thoughtful and sometimes provocative way with Beethoven this disc is an excellent starting point.
Stimulating and bracing Beethoven: an important appendix to Gardiner’s DG cycle.