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January 4, 2013

On the Record: Beethoven revitalized by ORR/John Eliot Gardiner

In the grand scheme of themes, we have more than enough recordings of Beethoven symphonies. But there always seems to be room for one more.

I would gladly clear a spot on an overstuffed CD shelf for a version of Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh symphonies recently released on the Soli Deo Gloria label, recorded live at Carnegie Hall by New York's classical station radio WQXR.

This disc captures the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique and its conductor, John Eliot Gardiner, at a white-hot peak of expressive fervor. You can get freshly excited about these war horses all over again.

Gardiner and the ORR, a splendid ensemble of period instruments, recorded the nine symphonies nearly 20 years ago. This return to the Fifth and Seventh finds the musicians digging even more forcefully and incisively into the scores.

Detail after detail emerges with new clarity and purpose, from the most vehement fortissimos to the gentlest inner phrase.

Those of us who tightly clutch our Furtwangler and Bernstein recordings of Beethoven sometimes find the more literal approach of the authenticists and the leaner sound of period instrument orchestras wanting. But Gardiner has always been ...

set apart from his fellow historically-minded conductors by his willingness to get far beyond the basics of original tempo and texture, to instill a sense of discovery in his players. And the ORR routinely demonstrates an admirable level of technical polish (folks who still think period instrument groups can't play in tune have never heard the ORR).

One of my favorite concert experiences was a Beethoven 9 Gardiner and the ORR gave at Lincoln Center in the 1990s. I knew it would be quicker than my old faves; I smugly assumed it would feel less poetic and touching as well. Instead, I was riveted, rewarded, rejuvenated.

Sure, if you make me play the desert-island-recording game, I'd still choose some crackly old Furtwangler/Beethoven gem, but I'd keep Gardiner's interpretations tucked away in the memory banks, too.

I find the British conductor's latest account of the Fifth satisfying from the get-go, as when he takes a slight diminuendo on the D that concludes the fate-knocking motive, thus enabling the strings' next lines to emerge cleanly (too often, from modern orchestras, we get no such separation, so everything runs together -- the Baltimore Symphony's performance earlier this season with Marin Alsop was a case in point).

Many versions of the Fifth performed these days are fast. This one is, too, but with an extra degree of tautness and enough variations in speed to keep things interesting, often startling. Same goes for the Seventh. And in the slow(er) movements of both works, Gardiner never sounds hurried; he leaves lots of room for the beautifully expressive turns of phrase.

Throughout, his players deliver the goods, with terrific cohesiveness and abundant nuances of tone, clearly relishing the richness of ideas packed into each of these enduring, eventful symphonies.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:25 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, On the Record

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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