Very few musicologists have been able to promote their scholarship in such a way that alters the perspective of modern musical performance quite like Sir John Eliot Gardiner, whose work with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique over the past 20-odd years has seemingly changed the perception of Beethoven’s orchestral works forever. Not only has Gardiner fine-tuned his ensemble to become a machine of period-instrument virtuosity, his superhumanly acute ear continues to provide crystalline clarity to Beethoven’s complex polyphony in ways that make his performances akin to hearing these works for the first time.
Returning to Carnegie Hall for the first of two concerts, Gardiner led his orchestra, along with the Monteverdi Choir, in alternately chilling and spiritual performances of the Ninth Symphony, as well as the seldom-heard mini-cantata, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. For listeners and musicians alike—groomed on Karajan’s and Bernstein’s heavy, legato rendetions of the Beethoven symphonic cycle—it admittedly takes some time to get used to the period style: the lowered pitch, the gut strings, the lack of a precise modern attack from the winds and brass.
To dip the listener’s proverbial toe into the pool, the nine-minute choral work served as a light and reverent preamble to the feast to come, beginning with a blanket of string sound that seemed to rise imperceptibly from the hall itself before the chorus’s first statement of the evening, “Deepest calm lies on the water.”
Absorbing the orchestral movements of the symphony in such a new style makes the entrance of the vocal soloists and choir even more jarring; Matthew Rose’s cavernous bass sound struck the ear as the first modern and relatable timbre of the evening. Gardiner incorporated the vocal forces into the framework just as he had done with the orchestra—leading sudden changes in dynamic and color, bringing out inner voices usually hidden by overwrought playing, and moving through the work at breakneck speeds.
There was a unity of sound and approach displayed that was only marred by soprano Elisabeth Meister’s warbly soprano, a piercing instrument that dominated many of the vocal quartet’s finer moments. Not even one performer taking too much of the spotlight could deter from the performance, however, as splashes of color came fast and furious—especially in the Turkish march material, where the orchestra’s piccolo, cymbal, and contrabassoon drove the ensemble and chorus to their final, joyous declamations.