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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1802) [31:16]
Symphony No 8 in F major, Op. 93 (1812) [24:42]
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live 30 November, 2013, Cadogan Hall, London
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG721 [57:00]

2014 is a year rich in anniversaries for Sir John Eliot Gardiner. In March his Monteverdi Choir marked its fiftieth anniversary with a performance of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge on the exact anniversary of the date when, singing that work in the self-same venue, the choir appeared in public for the very first time,. Now, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in October 1989 SDG issues this pairing of two Beethoven symphonies. It may be coincidental that Gardiner’s complete Beethoven symphony cycle for DG Archiv was first released in 1994, twenty years ago. In passing, I wonder if Gardiner plans to re-record all the Beethoven symphonies for SDG: we’ve already had a coupling of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, recorded live in Carnegie Hall (review), not to mention the small matter of an excellent live account of Missa Solemnis (review).
 
I bought Gardiner’s DG Archiv cycle when it first appeared and admired it very much. There’s also much to admire about this new release, though I don’t believe the earlier recordings are overshadowed. Looking back, I see that I described the SDG accounts of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies as ‘thrusting, dynamic performances’ and that description could fairly be applied to the present performances too.
 
In his lively booklet notes Stephen Johnson tells us that the Second is probably Sir John’s favourite of all the Beethoven symphonies. I must admit that I was slightly disconcerted by the opening: the loud chords that punctuate the start of the introduction sound edgy and almost fierce. Furthermore, the selected speed isn’t really my idea of Adagio molto; it’s pretty swift. A comparison with the earlier DG recording, made in November 1991 under studio conditions, is instructive. That earlier performance appears to be slightly more expansive though, in fact, the introduction takes 2:43 compared with 2:30 for the new recording, which is not a vast difference. What I think gives the impression of greater breadth is that the DG engineers, working in the Blackheath Concert Hall in London, obtained a warmer, richer sound. Also Gardiner makes those loud chords a bit more spacious and full. I prefer the earlier reading of the introduction, though there’s no denying that the new reading is intense and dramatic. In the main Allegro con brio both performances are very swift and exciting but to my ears the new version sounds more driven; indeed, there are occasions when the playing appears somewhat aggressive. I noted that the double basses make a fuller sound in the DG recording though Gardiner uses the same number of instruments – four – in each performance. Overall Gardiner knocks a minute off his 1991 timing (11:10 in 2013 compared with 12:08 in 1991) and I can’t escape the feeling that the later performance comes across as a bit too hasty and fierce. It’s an exciting performance, to be sure, and what Stephen Johnson rightly describes as the symphony’s “life-affirming energy” is there in abundance but it also leaves me with the impression of a tense account where a sense of fun is not immediately apparent.
 
Beethoven follows this bracing opener with a genial, relaxed Larghetto. It’s very well done here, though ideally I think I’d prefer a slightly more easeful tempo. However, Gardiner brings out lots of detail and care is taken over phrasing. The performance seems broadly similar to the 1991 account though the more mellow DG sound is perhaps better suited to the music. In both recordings the Scherzo is lithe and dynamic but the 2013 performance, which is really light on its feet, is a bit more deft. Here the slightly drier SDG recording suits the music well. Terrific momentum is generated in the finale, which is sparkling and alert in the 2013 performance – as was the case in 1991. The 2013 performance is exhilarating with Beethoven’s accents and dynamic contrasts used to maximum effect. The 1991 performance is no less agile and exuberant though I fancy that the pace is just marginally steadier. In this movement, too, the slightly leaner SDG sound works well.
 
In the Eighth Symphony Gardiner obtains a lean, muscular sound in the 2013 performance, which is strongly projected. In the notes Sir John is quoted as describing the start of the first movement as akin to ‘flinging open a door and finding that there’s a riotous party going on inside.’ As so often with Gardiner his phraseology in describing music is colourful and apt. However, I’m not entirely sure that I hear party sounds in this performance. The music-making is arguably a bit too taut and vigorous for a party. The momentum never flags and, as in the Second, the sharp use of accents is consistently exciting. His DG Archiv studio recording was set down in December 1992 in All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak and listening to it again I think there’s a bit more ’give’ in that performance. Just out of interest I sampled the performance in the very fine set conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras (review). The performances differ in many ways, not least the use of modern instruments by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for Mackerras. However, the crucial difference, for me, is that Mackerras seems to have a twinkle in his eye and that’s just what this music needs. For all its positive virtues, not least the dynamism, I miss that in both Gardiner readings.
 
Beethoven’s cheeky little Allegretto scherzando gets a perky performance from the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in both recordings. In the quirky Menuetto, which is taken quite swiftly, I liked the horn sound in the trio. The 2013 performance of the finale goes like the wind – and it doesn’t seem any less swift in the 1992 recording. You really have to hang on to your hat while listening, though even at this lightning speed articulation doesn’t suffer. Gardiner seems insatiable in impelling the music forward with white hot energy though he still ensures that there’s plenty of light and shade in the performance. I turned to Mackerras again but found that his performance, though intensely musical, seems rather safe by comparison.
 
It’s time to sum up. These are excellent performances, full of energy and interest. For me the rather driven, unyielding performance of the Second Symphony’s first movement is something of a disappointment and it’s the chief reason I prefer his 1991 recording. Honours are much more even in the Eighth; both Gardiner performances have much to commend them though I’m not sure he conveys Beethoven’s bluff humour. In truth, his isn’t the only way to play these particular Beethoven symphonies. Other conductors have invested both scores with rather more charm and wit than I hear in these performances. But no conductor can ever give us a ‘definitive’ performance of a Beethoven symphony and Gardiner’s eventful, dynamic 2013 performances take their rightful place in the discography of these two works. One thing is for sure: these performances are anything but dull.
 
The documentation is up to the usual high SDG standards. I tend slightly to prefer the DG Archiv sound in both symphonies but Mike Hatch, who has recorded these new performances, offers clear, present recordings. After each performance there is vociferous applause but otherwise the Cadogan Hall audience is completely unobtrusive.
 
John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Symphony 2 ~~ Symphony 8