Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/Gardiner at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1

Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra
The Times (UK)

By Geoff Brown

5/5 stars

Most orchestras face the audience’s applause stony-faced, like rows of prunes. Not this lot. As hands clapped loudly, members of John Eliot Gardiner’s Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique beamed from ear to ear, basking in their own enjoyment of a concert filled with party bunting from the very first bar. Even Gardiner himself, once considered quite a Tartar, relaxed into pleasure. Spiffily dressed in full evening gear, he talked to us twice during the night, brimming with joy at returning afresh to Beethoven’s symphonies — the repertoire in which his scything baton and the ORR’s period instruments made such a splash two decades ago.

Mounted on the eve of the orchestra’s American tour, this concert was something special. Never once did it stand in the shadow of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra’s Beethoven cycle at the Barbican. Those Leipzig interpretations bore numerous influences of the “authentic” playing style: lightness, clarity, incisive drama, brisk speeds. Yet only Gardiner, playing Symphonies Four and Seven, placed Beethoven in an historical continuum, conjuring up not just the composer’s revolutionary fervour, bred in revolutionary times, but also the music grown later from his seeds.

Brahms, for instance. We heard him clearly in the Fourth’s slow movement: those mellifluous melodies; those pensive sounds, so beautifully hand-coloured by the ORR’s winds. The awed suspended hush at the symphony’s start conjured nature stirring in Mahler’s first symphony. Most of all we heard Beethoven raw in tooth and claw, with his truculent vigour, swift dynamic changes and endless, surprising invention.

Gardiner’s short baton, plus Robert Kendell’s timpani, stirred much punch and fury. Yet even in the compact Queen Elizabeth Hall, even with flutes and piccolo whooping hard in the Egmont overture, the music-making never became aggressive. Festive with quirks, no period instrument ensemble can ever sound like a cold machine, least of all the ORR. The Seventh’s obsessive, hurtling finale galloped ahead, robust, warm, genuinely thrilling, though the earlier, more intricate movements, offered the best and juiciest listening. Stabbing chords zinged into our ears; tendrils of melody quivered in the breeze. It was revolutionary; it was romantic; it was wonderful.