Beethoven, With Not-So-Subtle Attacks of Piccolo, Drum and a Standing Violinist
By CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM
Too often we think of historically informed performances in terms of what is stripped away: less vibrato; fewer players; the muted brilliance of gut strings and natural horns. But as John Eliot Gardiner demonstrated in two red-blooded performances of Beethoven masterworks at Carnegie Hall this past weekend, the period-instrument movement is, at its best, an ambitious grab for big effects and heightened expressive power. On Friday he led his Monteverdi Choir and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in a flame-drawn rendition of the Ninth; on Saturday he gave a glowing performance of the “Missa Solemnis.”
Mr. Gardiner created the Orchestre Révolutionnaire, a large symphony orchestra playing on 19th-century instruments, in 1989, but its sounds still hold surprises. Some are quietly revealing, like the wood-bodied flute that insinuates itself into the soloists’ quartet in the “Et incarnatus” of the “Missa.” Others come as a shock: the kettledrums that sound like cannon fire; the piercing insistence of a piccolo that seems to have been requisitioned from Napoleon’s army.
But, ultimately, the choice of instruments is like casting in theater: a dream lineup of character actors still needs a director with vision in order to tell the story. For Mr. Gardiner, that vision begins with the text. Even in the purely instrumental movements of the Ninth, there appeared to be words encrypted in the music, so declamatory and speechlike were some phrases. At other times he whipped up furiously fast tempos that left no room for the sort of ponderous self-importance that can sneak into performances of Beethoven’s music and that are deadly in the extensive fugues of the “Missa.” Mr. Gardiner is an expressive conductor, shaping phrases with expansive arm gestures and the occasional sideways flick of a hip.
In the choral finale of the Ninth and throughout the “Missa,” the primacy of the text was never in doubt. The Monteverdi Choir sang it with crystalline diction and extraordinary flexibility, giving individual words deliberate dabs of color. Rarely has the word “Kuss” — the poet Schiller’s kiss to humanity in the “Ode to Joy” — been delivered with such panache. The “Sanctus” of the “Missa” was uttered in hushed whispers like an incantation.
The English bass Matthew Rose made an authoritative entrance in the Ninth when he jumped to his feet to sing his introductory recitative. In the “Missa” he showed great reserves of power and depth. Some of the most moving solo singing came from Jennifer Johnston, whose mezzo glows with unforced feeling and whose pure style fits well into the period-instrument world. The soprano Elisabeth Meister and the tenor Michael Spyres rounded out the finely matched quartet of soloists.
But certain instrumentalists, encouraged by Mr. Gardiner, managed to steal the spotlight when he invited many of them to stand for their solos. Among them were Peter Hanson, who rose for the extensive violin part that meanders in and out of the “Benedictus,” and the three trombones who acted as a sort of celestial press gang throughout the “Missa.” In the final bars of the “Ode to Joy” the piccolo stood in front of the chorus like a fifer leading his troops into battle.