Sunday, November 20, 2011

Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique explores Beethoven's "Heroic" ideals

Carnegie Hall tenure ends on "Heroic" note

By Dwight Casimere


Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts

An early French horn

A Baroque trumpet

New York---Sir John Eliot Gardiner is considered one of the guiding lights of the early music revival. As founder of both the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, and the English Baroque Soloists, his concerts and more than 250 recordings have earned him the highest honors. In addition to his knighthood, he is an Honorary Fellow of King’s College, London, and the Royal Academy of Music, which awarded him the prestigious Bach Prize in 2008.

In the last of two concerts at Carnegie Hall, he presented a program that probed the theoretical underpinnings of Beethoven’s music in the wake of his early, formative years. The Overture to Die Geschopfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) is a work he composed to accompany a ballet by choreographer Salvatore Vigano in 1800. The work depicts the story of the Greek Titan Prometheus, who creates humans out of clay and imbues them with knowledge of the arts and sciences. This idea fascinated Beethoven and informed his later theories on society and politics of his day.

The second work in the program, the Symphony No. 4 is, stylistically, one of the composer’s most refined. It employs a structure that he would use in several of its later works. The contrast between slow and fast passages, and the dark, minor modes that would emerge into bright, major-key finales would become Beethoven’s hallmark.

Finally, the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, the “Eroica” (Heroic), is among his most dazzling. Originally dedicated to Napoleon, the composer tore up the title page when he learned that Napoleon had declared himself “emperor.” Beethoven despaired that his fallen hero would “now trample on the rights of man” as did every despot before him.

It is this profound sense of history that Sir John Eliot Gardiner brought to the Perelman Stage as he conducted his energetic ensemble of period instrument players at Carnegie Hall.

The tempos he created for the Prometheus were aggressive, without being overly hurried. There was ample allowance for the trumpets to ring forth in the dramatic exclamation of the opening chords. Zeus’s ‘thunderstorm’ when he exacts punishment against Prometheus for stealing the gift of fire and giving it to the mortal beings he created, is one of the highlights of this stirring performance that showcased the superb partnering of the string sections and the ringing percussion, in the form of perfectly tuned timpani.

One of the evening’s great mysteries was the location of the timpani player and his instruments. It was revealed at intermission that he was seated rather low, behind the riser that held the violas and second violins. He eschewed the break enjoyed by the other musicians during the interval to tune his well-polished drums. The superb clarity of his sound affirmed the good result of his labors.

Horns and trumpets once again dominated the jubilant finale to the Symphony No. 4. However, it was the Eroica that showed the true mettle of this superb ensemble. Every member of the orchestra gave his or her all in a performance that matched in energy the ‘heroic’ title of the symphony. The elegiac Marcia funebre(funeral march): Adagio assai set up the dramatic contrast for the explosive Scherzo (fast movement) and the blazing finale, heralded by the flutes (here, truly made of wood or “woodwinds,” not the shiny silver and brass modern flutes we’re accustomed to seeing) and those incendiary valveless trumpets that are a marvel to behold. Similarly valveless horns also made their forceful presence known with some exquisite playing.

Beethoven ends the Eroica with a theme he had presented in the earlier “Prometheus” Overture. Maestro Gardiner emphasizes that point with great aplomb, giving a performance that showcased his and his orchestra’s versatility and mastery of the music that defined the turning point between Classic and Romantic music.

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