The modern symphony orchestra is a marvel of technical innovation and sophistication. Its instruments are highly evolved pieces of machinery, allowing the musicians minimal technical distractions, so that the big, smooth sound we take for granted can be produced. Why bother, then, to perform music on so-called period instruments, which are so much harder to play?
The answer is a paradox. For the really serious period instrumentalist, one of the most important reasons to play a wood flute or a valveless horn is precisely because they are harder to play.
The remarkable Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov recently recorded Beethoven's last three sonatas on a fortepiano built during the composer's time. He has said that the "irregularities" of the keyboard bring him closer to the music, as they remind him of the struggles in the creative process. The evening before the performance at Verizon Hall by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, the conductor, Sir John Elliot Gardiner, led a discussion among several of the players, and their comments reflected a similar sentiment.
Oboist Michael Niesemann remarked that after he tried to play the Baroque version of his instrument for the first time, as a conservatory student, he burst into tears in frustration. Horn player Anneke Scott demonstrated how she must augment the handful of notes that are available to her by thrusting her fist into the bell to alter the pitch. So why do they do it?
What's really authentic?
Gardiner, gently deriding what he calls the "all-purpose" sound of the modern orchestra, noted that the "needle is in the danger zone all of the time" when his musicians play, lending a bracing, edgy quality to their performances that, surely in the case of Beethoven, enhances the truly revolutionary spirit of the music.
Does this approach make the music making more authentic? Gardiner scoffed at such a concept. The authenticity of Beethoven's real world would be enhanced if the players had never practiced their parts, perhaps were a bit drunk, or had little serious instruction in how to actually perform. Their instruments could be poorly made. That was usually the case in the early 19th Century, although a few exceptions were beginning to emerge in France and Germany, under such leaders as Mendelssohn.
The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, on the other hand, is an extraordinarily well disciplined band of the world's finest instrumentalists, led by one of the great conductors of our time. The instruments are exquisitely hand crafted by master artisans. The size of the ensemble (about 60 players) is a bit smaller than most modern orchestras that perform this repertoire, but larger than almost any orchestra Beethoven would have known.
So how does it all add up? For this Philadelphia performance, the results were exhilarating.
Balletic conducting style
Most of the credit must go to Gardiner's extraordinarily well-shaped and propulsive readings, which tended, in all of the movements of the two symphonies, to be on the fleet side. It was a joy to watch Gardiner's marvelously balletic conducting style, spry and graceful, and with an expressiveness that was readily reflected in the playing.
But that sound! The plethora of buzzing gut strings, wooden winds with the subtle flavorings of dry red wine, and the thrilling thwack on the animal skin timpani heads. The braying horns seemed mere steps away from the hunting grounds of old Europe.
The antique instruments made the music sound fresh in a way that their modern relatives make blunt. The counterpoint popped with a lucidity that was revelatory.
The lighter timbre of the instruments also gave the dynamic phrasing an enhanced vitality. Crescendos were heard to leap up with astonishing agility, and decrescendos tapered to feathery hushes in an instant.
And yes, there were plenty of little bobbles, much more than we're accustomed to hearing in an orchestra at this level, but it was all part of the esthetic ambience. One listened with ears scrubbed out, wondering anew at how this endlessly fascinating, bewildering and immensely powerful art must have sounded to the first audiences more than two centuries ago.
This way of hearing Beethoven doesn't replace the way that the Philadelphia Orchestra and its ilk make the music sound. Today's classical music lovers are lucky: We can hear it both ways. But true lovers of these masterpieces will diminish their appreciation— even their understanding of the composer's vision— if they resist hearing it performed on period instruments. Just try to make sure it's at the exalted level of Gardiner and his colleagues.♦
To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.