Beethoven @ 250: The Danish String Quartet Perform Beethoven's Complete Quartets at Alice Tully Hall
Beethoven @ 250: Orchestra of St. Luke's and La Chapelle de Québec at Carnegie Hall

Beethoven @ 250: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique Perform Beethoven's Complete Symphonies at Carnegie Hall

Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique

"Symphonies are the best representation of my true self." - Beethoven

Beethoven's nine symphonies are the foundation of the symphonic repertory, the standard by which all others are measured. His achievement was so brilliant, so daring, it paralyzed composers for decades to come; Brahms was so terrified of comparisons to Beethoven, he didn't finish his First Symphony until he was 43.

Of course, I've heard all of the Beethoven symphonies performed in concert, several multiple times. They are burned into my memory from countless hours of listening to them on vinyl, cassette, CD, and Spotify. Could there be anything left to discover at this point, anything to make them sound fresh and vital?

This past summer, I was driving around the Catskills when Beethoven's 5th came on the radio. I was about to change the dial - ugh, not again - until I realized that this was a performance unlike any I've ever heard. It was visceral, intense, almost hyperreal. I had to pull off of the road so I wouldn't accidentally miss a hairpin turn.

Who was this? The Berlin Phil? Vienna? Imagine my surprise when the announcer said it was the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, led by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. I was dumbstruck: the London-based ORR, founded by Gardiner 30 years ago, practice historically informed performance, using outdated, often inferior instruments that were in use at the time this music was written. Honestly, I've never been a big fan: sure, vintage violins are great, but valveless horns? Wooden flutes? Compared to a modern symphony orchestra, period instrument ensembles feel to me like an affectation, stuck in low gear.

Gardiner, obviously, disagrees:

"My enthusiasm for period instruments is not antiquarian or in pursuit of some bogus and unattainable authenticity, but simply a refreshing alternative to the standard, monochrome qualities of the symphony orchestra... I just love the sounds they make."

Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique Carnegie Hall
James Estrin/NY Times

While most HIP ensembles play Baroque and Medieval music, the ORR focuses on music from the Romantic and post-Romantic periods: in recent seasons, they've performed works by Berlioz, Brahms and Schumann, just to name a few. But, Beethoven is at the core of everything they do, their raison d'être.

"With Beethoven," says Gardiner, "you need to have an edge all of the time, so that everybody is playing with a needle in the red zone. It's much harder to do with a modern orchestra."

Color me convinced. So, imagine my excitement when I heard that Gardiner would be bringing the ORR to Carnegie Hall for a complete cycle of Beethoven's symphonies, one of two cycles Carnegie is presenting this season as part of its Beethoven 250 Celebration. Naturally, it began the day after the Danish String Quartet wrapped up their cycle of Beethoven's quartets at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. When it comes to Beethoven, there's no rest for the weary.

The first program, performed Wednesday Feb. 20, was mostly a curiosity cabinet of works from the early part of Beethoven's career. The Creatures of Prometheus (1801), Beethoven's sole ballet, is rarely heard these days aside from the quicksilver Overture. The ORR added the Introduction and Act I: light, theatrical music clearly influenced by Mozart, though somewhat less inspired. At the end of the concert, they performed the Finale, its theme clearly recognizable from the forthcoming "Eroica" symphony.

Lucy Crowe, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique  Carnegie Hall
James Estrin/New York Times

Soprano Lucy Crowe joined the orchestra for Ah! Perfido ("Ah! treacherous", 1796) a Mozart-inspired Italian aria from the point of view of a woman who's been cheated on by her lover. Later in the program, she sang two arias ("Ah, break not yet, you weary heart!" and "Come, Hope, let not your last star") from Leonore (1805), the first version of Beethoven's sole opera, Fidelio.  Crowe has a fine voice, but was a bit hammy and melodramatic for my taste. It didn't help that those valveless horns were persistently flubbing notes throughout.

The Leonore Overture No. 1 (1807) was actually Beethoven's third attempt at an overture for Leonore/Fidelio; he would eventually write a total of four. Compared to the more famous Leonore No. 3, this one felt tentative, like it didn't want to go anywhere. 

The main course - really, the only reason I was there - was the Symphony No. 1 (1800). The most conspicuous thing about the ORR's performance was that the string players stood throughout, apparently a legitimate practice back in Beethoven's day. You could hear the difference right away: in the opening Allegro con brio, there was more energy, more urgency. The music itself isn't all that revolutionary - that would come later - but as an extension of the well-traveled symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, it's an impressive achievement.

Beethoven seemed to know what he was after right out of the gate: in the Menuetto, there are flashes of his brusque, fiery temperament, alongside moments of dark brooding. The Finale is a brilliant stroke of invention: starting with a somewhat ugly chord, things suddenly goes quiet before picking up into a fiendishly propulsive Allegro. The winds in particular get a real workout here, and the ORR played it flawlessly. I was starting to understand the method behind the madness: in the same way that stressed grapes make the best wine, having to overcome the difficulties of playing these antique instruments makes the musicians play harder, with more focus and intensity.

Carnegie Hall

From there on out, it was all symphonies. The next night, the ORR began with the Symphony No. 2 (1802), Beethoven's final "settling of accounts with the existing symphonic tradition," according to Maynard Ferguson in his biography, Beethoven. The opening Adagio-Allegro is more or less conventional, but towards the end there are a series of dissonant chords that crescendo to a forceful conclusion with trumpets and timpani blaring. Beethoven replaced the traditional mannered Minuet with a slashing, playful Scherzo ("Joke"), establishing that as the new standard for symphonies to come. The Finale (Allegro molto) is both strange and exhilarating, alternating between odd blurts and triumphant fanfares. Constantly pushing and pulling back, it is one of Beethoven's most thrilling creations, but critics at the time were not amused.

"The Finale is a repulsive monster,  a wounded, tail-lashing serpent, dealing wild and furious blows as it stiffens into its death agony at the end." - Zeitung fuer die elegante Welt (Newspaper for the Elegant World)

The revolution arrived in earnest after intermission with the Symphony No. 3, "Eroica" (1803). This is the one that broke the mold: longer, more complex than any symphony that had ever been written, the "Eroica" is where Beethoven leaves into uncharted territory. Back to standing (they sat for the Second symphony), the strings of the ORR dug into the opening Allegro  with forcefulness, Gardiner pushing them ever harder and harder. The natural trumpets, about twice the size of modern valve trumpets, soared over the orchestra with impressive, if a bit excessive volume. 

The Marche funebre (Funeral March) is Beethoven at his darkest and most solemn, though not without moments of triumph similar to Siegfried's Funeral March, written some 70 years later. The Scherzo - the shortest of the four movements - is something of a respite, featuring a horn trio that unfortunately yielded kazoo-like sounds in the natural horns. The Finale is another of Beethoven's bold innovations: instead of a quick, exciting conclusion, he indulges in an elongated set of variations on the "Eroica" theme (introduced in The Creatures of Prometheus), evolving into a full-blown fugue. After fifteen minutes or so, Beethoven finally brings the curtain down with an explosion of notes as the tempo abruptly switches from Poco Andante to Presto. The ORR played it like a bat out of hell, hitting the final three chords with unbelievable force. Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, Carnegie Hall
Friday night, the ORR continued with the 4th Symphony (1806), which, if a bit of a step back to traditional form, is no less bold and dramatic. The first movement begins dark and moody, making the explosion into an Allegro three minutes in all the more dramatic. The Adagio is filled with gorgeous melodies and sonorities, all gently unfolding like a stroll through a summer meadow. The dancey third movement Scherzo flows easily into the jubilant Allegro ma non troppo ("not too much") with more breakneck playing hurtling headlong into the finish. 

As good as the ORR's performance of the 4th was, I found it almost impossible to contain my excitement for the 5th Symphony (1808). One of the artistic wonders of the world, the dark, angry four note theme that opens the 5th is as familiar as the Colosseum or the Mona Lisa, yet no matter how many times we hear it, it still retains its power to shock. Once again, the strings played standing, allowing them to play lightning fast, slashing through the first movement in less than six minutes (without the repeat). 

The Andante is a serene, if brief respite from the constant struggle, though even here there are sudden fanfares and timpani blasts to keep you on edge. The ORR strings played like they were on fire in the Allegro third movement, with the low strings really digging in, shaking wildly as they played. Right before the transition to the C major finale - played without pause - the wind and brass players dramatically joined the strings in standing, sending a jolt of excitement through the hall. Amidst all the triumphant bombast, the transparency was astonishing: you could clearly hear the flutes, the clarinets, every individual string player. I thought I was hallucinating when I heard the players singing along at one point, until my seat neighbor confirmed that it had actually happened. After the ridiculously long coda, with some 29 bars of C major chords, the audience erupted in applause. Carnegie HallSunday afternoons have always been my favorite days to hear music at Carnegie. Everyone is more alert, more involved, eager to respond with genuine enthusiasm. And, what a Sunday this was: the ORR kicked things off with Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, "Pastoral" (1808), a sunny, pictorial exposition of life in the country, laid out over five movements. These are far gentler waters than the fiery 5th: the first movement depicts the cheerfulness one feels after arriving in the country from the city (something I can certainly relate to); the second is placed by a brook, with flute and woodwinds depicting various birds while shimmering strings painted the water flowing slowly by. 

Next, a gathering of country folk, full of dances and song, is suddenly interrupted by an ominous thunderstorm. By modern standards, the up and down strings depicting the wind comes across as a bit cheesy - think early Hollywood - until you realize that noone had ever really done this before. The low strings played the rumble of distant thunder while the timpani - played with sticks on animal hide - got a real workout. The symphony ends with a sunny Shepherd's Song, grateful for the passing of the storm. The music grows to an ecstatic crescendo, filled with emotion, before softly fading away.

Carnegie Hall
The Seventh Symphony (1812) is, like the 5th, built from energy and fire. Rhythmically propulsive, Wagner called it "The Apotheosis of the Dance"; appropriately, the string players were back to playing while standing. The first movement starts softly (Poco sostenuto) before a full-tilt Vivace. The end of the movement, with its clarion brass and pounding timpani, was a shot of pure adrenaline.

The second movement, Allegretto, is another of Beethoven's remarkable achievements. Starting slow and low, the music slowly builds at a hypnotic pace before exploding in an emotional outburst. The music pulls back, then rushes forward again, eventually ending with an unsettling dissonance.

A feverish Scherzo (marked Presto) follows, with thunderous timpani and strings that really dug in. But, the finale (Allegro con brio) is where Beethoven goes for broke. Fleet and flying, the ORR took the many twists and turns unbelievably fast. Here, Beethoven pushes everything to the limit, and beyond: the electrifying coda contains a blast with a rare "fff" marking ("Very, very loud"), then drops down to a pianissimo before rising to a second "fff". Gardiner and the ORR played it to the hilt, bringing the symphony to a screaming finish. The audience immediately roared its approval with the loudest ovation of the entire cycle. 

Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, Carnegie HallFour down, one to go. The final program began with the Symphony No. 8 (1812), which Beethoven started writing immediately after the 7th. This Neoclassical work has always played second fiddle to that other Promethean symphony, despite its fiery, fighting intensity in the opening Allegro, including more "fff" markings. The Allegretto is light and airy, followed by a surprising Minuet, which Beethoven had long since resigned to the dustheap. The finale (Allegro vivace) is a manic dance, full of wit and grotesquery, ending with one of Beethoven's weirdest, most protracted codas, whipsawing violently back and forth until resolving in a final series of emphatic chords.

As warm as the reception was for the ORR's fine performance of the 8th, you could sense that everyone was holding back for what was still to come: the Ninth Symphony in D minor (1824). Often reserved for special occasions, it was fascinating to hear this behemoth performed in context, only after all of the other symphonies. 

Commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1817, it would be another five years before Beethoven would actually begin working on the 9th. But, he wasn't just procrastinating: in the 13 years that had passed since his last symphony, Beethoven had laid the groundwork with numerous songs, cantatas - and most importantly, the Missa Solemnis (1824). He'd also gone almost completely deaf. 

Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, Carnegie Hall
Photo: Stephanie Berger

The many innovations of the 9th - the strange, challenging harmonics, the hour-plus length, the choral finale - are well known by now. But, no matter how many times you've heard the 9th, there is nothing that can quite prepare you for the hushed opening chord: an otherworldly sound the likes of which had never been heard before. This was music from the future, from a place perhaps only Beethoven - now sequestered in silence - could hear.

Beethoven soon shatters the mood with a terrifying blast; the ORR trumpets sounded as if they were breaking the Seventh Seal. From there, Gardiner kept things moving at a brisk pace, refusing to wallow in the drama of so many modern performances. He also strictly adhered to Beethoven's markings, making the moves from soft to loud (fff) all the more impactful.

There was no relief in the second movement scherzo (Molto vivace), which grabs and shakes you by the collar. It was clear to me that John Eliot and the ORR had gone over every square inch of this score with a fine toothed comb: the flutes and winds were spot on in their solos, the strings crisp and clear, the colors rich and transparent. Again, the pace was quick but never rushed - just steady and straight. For a man of 76, Gardiner showed impressive energy, bouncing up and down on the podium.

Beethoven is at his most tender and lyrical in the 3rd movement (Adagio molto e cantabile), one of his most spiritual, beautiful creations. In many performances, this movement can last upwards of 20 minutes; John Eliot cut that in about half. Personally, I would have preferred a bit slower pace to tease out the emotions here, but I have to respect Gardiner's consistently drama-free approach. Most of the instruments soared, though the wobbly horns continued to be a distraction, at least for me.

Orchestre Revolutionnaire et RomantiqueBeethoven saved his most radical innovation for last. Never before had voices been heard in a symphony; Beethoven himself had spent his entire symphonic career solidly in the wordless camp.

"Up until this point," Gardiner writes, "Beethoven said instrumental music was capable of doing everything poetry tries to do, but in an even more intense and graphic way. He didn't need voices."

But, being the Great Disrupter, Beethoven clearly felt it was time to shatter yet another norm. First, though, the Finale opened with another jolting blast, anchored by the ORR strings who were standing once again, having made the switch between movements. Next, the famous "Ode to Joy" theme was introduced by the low strings: a wondrous moment no matter how much we anticipate it. Bass Matthew Rose, tenor Ed Lyon, soprano Lucy Crowe, contralto Jess Dandy,

After playing through several variations, the bass soloist (Matthew Rose) interrupted the chaos with the somewhat self-deprecating words written by Beethoven himself:

''O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! Sondern laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen, und freudenvollere.'' ("Oh friends, not these sounds! Let us instead strike up more pleasing and more joyful ones!")

Then followed Schiller's "Ode to Joy," shifting back and forth over the next fifteen minutes between the Monteverdi Choir and soloists (Rose, soprano Lucy Crowe, contralto Jess Dandy, tenor Ed Lyon), all of whom sang off book. This was as operatic a performance of the 9th as I've ever heard. Despite the gnarliness of Beethoven's choral writing - some have even called it "unsingable" - the Monteverdi Choir dispatched it with amazing confidence and clarity. Once again, triumph over adversity. 

"If you can get over the gawkiness and the acrobatics that he asks of the singers," Gardiner says, "and respect the speed at which he requires you to deliver those lines, it's an incredibly exhilarating experience."

John Eliot Gardiner, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et RomantiqueIndeed. Nearly 200 years old, and the 9th hasn't lost one ounce of its ability to inspire awe and wonder (not to mention fear). And not just because of the music: this is Beethoven speaking to us directly over the centuries, saying that in spite of everything that's wrong with the world, in spite of all our political differences, we all belong to the same human family. And everything's going to be OK. 

"You millions, I embrace you. This kiss is for all the world!"

You can listen to an archived recording of the final ORR concert with the 8th and 9th symphonies here, courtesy of WQXR. If you happen to prefer the sound of a modern orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra arrives at Carnegie this Friday to kick off their own Beethoven cycle at the somewhat more leisurely pace of one concert a week; tickets and info here. More info about Carnegie's other Beethoven programs this season here. Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique
More pics here.