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A wonderful new Gardiner Beethoven offering that works on more levels than one
on 11 January 2013
I know there has been, and will always be, unease with the revisionist historically-informed perspective on the core classical repertoire. The Beethoven symphonies are no exception. I am aware that people are unhappy with the zippy, dapper presentation of such hallowed, profound music. Despite this persistent unease I have loved the Gardiner cycle of Beethoven symphonies from the bottom of my heart ever since its first release in 1994. Though there have been many other Beethoven cycles in the past two decades I have seen that this holds up very well among cycles with historically informed performance practices. The good thing about Gardiner and the ORR is that they were "late pioneers" of the HIPP approach to Beethoven and had time to smooth out the rough edges of Hogwood, Norrington and Goodman's recorded performances (i.e. they were late in the learning curve among the pioneers). Yet they still sound perfectly musical to my ears, playing with stylistic accuracy and musical honesty, punching above their weight to sound beefy, yet about-turning for tender passages. In fact in recent years I have found myself liking the Gardiner cycle more and more because I have seen that the tempo choices of Gardiner and the ORR are occasionally slower than Beethoven's marked speeds, and Gardiner still allows the music to breathe despite keeping to the fast markings.
This new diptych of Beethoven's 5th and 7th symphonies was done during a live concert in Carnegie Hall in 2011, but only released recently from radio recordings on Gardiner's own Soli Deo Gloria label. It is wonderful to have the chance to hear how Gardiner sounds almost 20 years after he and the ORR did their DG Beethoven project. Gardiner may have gained in age but yet his approach is still the same. The ORR is more seasoned and the different sections interact better at a later stage in their existence.
To show two examples of the different character of these performances I would like to highlight the famous Fate motif that starts the Fifth and the opening slow introduction to the Seventh. The first statement of the Fifth Symphony motto does not charge in the same way as it did in the 1990s cycle, but yet the first movement is still propulsive and steady. I also notice that the trio in the Fifth scherzo sounds a little slower. Likewise Gardiner takes a slower speed for the introduction to the Seventh. By and large the basic approach to both symphonies is the same. You still get the propulsive speeds and the interplay between sections, and Gardiner brings out the essence of each symphony so well. On this disc I love the gains that are made in this outing of the Seventh. The second movement sounds more supple with the interaction between the players. And I also like the overwhelming release of energy that informs the finale of the Seventh this time round. This movement alone shows a marked gain compared to the 1990s cycle, which sounded a little cautious when they took the movement at Beethoven's marked speed. Somehow or other I like the Seventh more than the Fifth on this disc because it releases more energy, but Gardiner and the ORR are still excellent and on top form in this music.
I'm not saying that one recording is better than the other. Gardiner's approach is still consistent, except with more experience in this performance. The musicianship is still of an extremely high standard and the orchestra is still punchy with stronger timpani this timr round. And I also like the recording qualify that is achieved. The well-focused and immediate recording is closely balanced but not too much, and the listener feels like he's within the orchestra rather than in the audience stalls.
As my concluding words, I would say that this Gardiner Beethoven disc can be recommended on many different levels. Not only can these be excellent modern stand-alone performances of the symphonies, fit to stand alongside Karajan and Kleiber. They can also be an introduction to Gardiner's Beethoven cycle in its budget-priced reissue. And they can also give the Gardiner fan the chance to know how his music making has ripened through the years. As another example, SDG released his retake of the Brahms German Requiem and the Bach motets and they sound much more supple than his earlier versions. Admittedly it may be too much to hope that Gardiner and the ORR would do the remaining seven symphonies, but this disc is an excellent window into Gardiner's mature approach to Beethoven. And in this case this disc is a worthy complement to his 1990s Beethoven box.
As a concluding aside, I am hoping that Gardiner and the ORR will record a Mendelssohn project soon, after their wonderful work on Beethoven, Berlioz, Schumann and Brahms. I am hoping that Gardiner and the ORR will do the five Mendelssohn symphonies. I'm really hoping that they could start with a CD of the Scottish and Italian symphonies and the Hebrides overture. And I would be keen to hear their treatment of the Lobgesang symphony and even the complete version of the Midsummer Night's Dream. He has redone some of his earlier Polygram and Erato repertoire for the SDG label and I'm sure that he would gladly cover the Italian and Reformation with the ORR after his 1997 version with the Vienna Philharmonic.