John Eliot Gardiner is one of the foremost exponents of Historically Informed Performance, and what this means when he works with the London Symphony Orchestra was something flautist Gareth Davies discussed recently in this very fine blog post, one that made me think of a number of things and promise a response that I still haven't written. This isn't that response, though it has some things in common.
One of the reasons I was curious to hear this concert is that Beethoven is something that Gardiner and the LSO have in common for me: namely my two favourite recordings of the fourth symphony, in turn one of my favourites. Gardiner's, with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, overflows with energy and excitement, and has no shortage of drama (the way he builds the tension in the opening is glorious). Haitink's, slightly lower octane but beautifully played reading, coupled with a glorious eighth is, for me, the highlight of his cycle with the LSO and one of my most treasured Beethoven discs. I'd love to hear what they'd do with the fourth, but it wasn't on the programme.
Instead they put Beethoven's first and last symphonies together, which is inherently interesting since it highlights nicely how far Beethoven travelled. Mackerras did something similar in his legendary 2006 Edinburgh festival cycle (they weren't in the same programe, since each symphony was in a concert by itself, but they followed each other in the last two).
Certainly, Gardiner gets a very different sound from the LSO than one might normally expect: gone is the vibrato, in with the calf skin timpani and hard sticks; phrasing is very clipped and he hits the accents with an almighty punch. The brass sound nicely brash in a way that I think always works well for Beethoven (something Mackerras achieves with the SCO by using natural trumpets - Gardiner hasn't gone that far with the LSO). And they played very well too, the strings in particular had a nice sound. The first symphony, which had the first half to itself, was very neat and tidy and it felt that everything was where it should be. Which, for me, was just the problem. I wanted more than that. I wanted more drama, more excitement, more passion.
Now, with works you know backwards, as I know the first, it's hard to find that danger and that unknown, yet somehow Mackerras does that, even with recordings I know well, he still surprises me. Somehow he finds the little details to bring out that you don't expect. Gardiner didn't. Mackerras often seems to get a lot of his excitement by knowing just how much to hold a pause, but last night there didn't seem to be any. The Mackeras comparison interests me because Mackerras is pretty HIP and yet I love what he does; but for him it never seems to be the ultimate goal, more a tool in delivering a performance (but I'm getting into my other post here). At other times, I found myself wishing Gardiner would give the music a little more room to breath. Were there, perhaps, lovely moments we were dashing past? But that probably wouldn't be HIP. It wasn't that it was bad, not by any means, and plenty of people loved it, it just wasn't quite to my taste.
The ninth that followed the interval was, at its best, much more successful, yet in its way even odder. There was a good degree of excitement, with Gardiner at times making the score feel very fresh indeed: there were plenty of moments where he surprised me in that opening allegro. The frenzied climaxes of the first and second movements were thrilling and left both a dry mouth and the taste of adrenalin that are side effects of good Beethoven playing; the breakneck pace of the second movement also helped. But other moments were frustrating: a fantastic climax would, almost immediately, bubble away into nothing, like all the air had been let out of the balloon. He didn't seem to hold the tension. If the pace had helped in the early movements, it hurt in the third. Now, of course, if you take a Furtwanglerian or Bernsteinian view (ultimately a Wagnerian one, I suppose) you are essentially flouting Beethoven's wishes to at least some degree, depending on how far you go. And yet, some way down that path there is the most staggering beauty, and you don't have to go to the absolute extreme to get it. Unfortunately, at the pace Gardiner took it, it was, well, a little banal. The two cutting chords towards the end of the movement, possibly my favourite moment in the symphony, were more or less lost.
The finale was again more successful in the manner of the opening movements, but here a fresh oddity was introduced: the LSO Chorus were absent. In their place Gardiner had brought his own Monteverdi Choir. Now, they're a very good choir indeed, but they're quite small. That's fine when they're with Gardiner's period ensembles such as the English Baroque Soloists and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, but paired with the LSO, even if it wasn't at its full strength, they were just too few. Gareth, in the blog post I mentioned earlier, maintains they sound like over two hundred; I can assure him that in the balcony they didn't, not close. When the orchestra was quiet these beautiful voices could be heard, when it was loud you could either hear them straining, and thus sounding less good than they ideally would, or barely at all. As a result it didn't have the force it should have. The soloists (Rebecca Evans, Wilke te Brummelstroete, Steve Davislim and Vuyani Mlinde, the latter especially) all sang well and, having heard it done twice in concert, I quite like sticking the soloists in amongst the orchestra like that; it didn't seem to matter that they were off to one side, doubtless a limitation imposed by the Barbican stage not being as roomy as some.
So, mixed then. If you're a fan of historically informed performance, you might well have loved it, as most present seemed to. I'm much more conflicted on the whole issue, having heard lots of historically informed things that I've loved and lots that I've felt haven't worked. However, this, for me, wasn't wholly successful. All that said, though, if there was a Gardiner/LSO Beethoven concert tomorrow I'd probably still go, because even when it didn't work for me it was still fascinating (in point of fact, there is another on Tuesday, but I'll be back in Edinburgh by then).
I should also report that tonight was something of an experiment. Normally I sit in the circle, but I was trying out the balcony as my brother had suggested the sound was superior. Of course, when the LSO were playing in a slightly different mode than normal probably wasn't the best time to try and find out. Certainly it was different - things seemed less dry but also a little dead. In some ways there seemed to be more clarity, but I don't think I got a good balance between winds and strings, such that when at the end Gareth Davies, principal flautist, was the first person brought to his feet, I couldn't understand why. Not, you understand, because there was anything wrong with his playing, he's excellent and there wasn't, just that I hadn't particularly noticed any flute solos, or they hadn't carried back to the gods (N.B. I think it was Gareth, I couldn't be 100% certain from where I was and the programme listed both principals, so please someone correct me if I'm wrong). I'm back in the balcony again next month when Adams is conducting which should give me a better comparison on the relative acoustics.
The whole question of how HIP things can and should be still weighs on me, and I haven't really addressed it in this review as fully as I'd like to. I plan to write a follow-up post on the subject but perhaps I really should have combined the two, it would probably have been a better review for it.
One small footnote on the choir, which puzzles me greatly. I was told a story recently about Gardiner doing something at the Edinburgh festival a few years back with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. Apparently he put their backs up so completely that the message went to the festival management that they wouldn't work with him again. Of course, working with amateurs is tricky in that they are there for fun and love not money (I know to some extent the same is true of our poorly paid musicians, but there is a difference) and so conductors who are too bossy or abrupt tend to go down very badly, though that doesn't necessarily mean a bad performance (but that's a subject for other post). I'm not suggesting there has been such a bust up between Gardiner and the LSO chorus in the past, but possibly such experiences have led Gardiner to insist on his own choir so that he can be sure of more easily getting exactly what he wants, even when it isn't entirely appropriate.