Beethoven 5 & 7 in The Arts Desk

The Arts Desk, by Graham Rickson, 19 October 2012

Beethoven Symphonies 5 & 7

John Eliot Gardiner's set of period-instrument Beethoven symphonies was a bestseller in the early 1990s.  Technically brilliant, immaculately played and lavishly packaged, the readings followed Beethoven's contentious metronome markings and remain a seminal listening experience, despite the claims of more recent sets by Emmanuel Krivine and Jos Van Immerseel.  Gardiner's new pairing of nos 5 and 7 was recorded live in Carnegie Hall a year ago.  The pace still feels driven, the tension high, but there's a greater sense of fun and a touch more colour now.  

You sense that Gardiner’s Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique now have these difficult pieces under their collective skin, and can now project them with a little more spontaneity and freedom.  This Fifth seethes, bubbles and spits in places, helped by immediate, close-up sound. The best bits are the few chinks of light – the slow movement’s bassoon-led winding down, and the galumphing basses in the scherzo’s trio.

Symphony no 7 is better still, its rapt introduction leading to an astonishing, punchy Vivace. Gardiner’s horns perform miracles, blasting out fortissimo top Es with no audible strain.  The Allegretto’s minor key processional brings us back down to earth, but bacchanalian bluster returns before long. Interviews with several of the ORR principals reproduced in the booklet shed some light on exactly why these performances sound so exciting: horn player Anneke Scott points out that the challenge of playing period instruments “pushes the musicians to their limits… this level of energy produces performances unlike anything else.”  She’s right.