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Period Instruments Breathe New Life Into a Musical Hero

11.17.11
Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra
The New York Times

By Steve Smith

During the last few weeks in New York it has been hard to miss a familiar baleful countenance staring out from a poster pasted up at a construction area, or perhaps from a banner on a Web site. Thanks to a clever advertising campaign for the classical radio station WQXR-FM, Beethoven is everywhere, rendered in the style of the street artist Shepard Fairey and adorned with a quirky logo: “OBEY THOVEN.”

That image came to mind just before a Beethoven concert by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night, during a conversation with a young man in a T-shirt emblazoned with another logo: that of Bathory, a revered Swedish black-metal band.

“Beethoven and Quorthon are my heroes,” my neighbor said earnestly. (Quorthon was the working name of Bathory’s founder, Tomas Forsberg.) Both, he proposed, were rugged individualists who brooked no compromise in forging an original, enduring style. When the orchestra came onstage he raised his right hand, index finger and pinkie extended: the orthodox heavy-metal salute.

One more thing: This was my neighbor’s first live encounter with Beethoven’s music. He had paid for a prime ticket for the Wednesday performance, and planned to be in a balcony for the orchestra’s second concert on Thursday.

WQXR’s Beethoven Awareness Month campaign notwithstanding, it’s hard to think of another composer who could inspire such devotion among listeners not chiefly concerned with classical music. And if this particular orchestra, a renowned period-instrument ensemble directed by the English conductor John Eliot Gardiner, didn’t start the fire, it fanned the flames effectively on Wednesday.

Mr. Gardiner and his players, outsiders when they first ventured into Beethoven’s music nearly two decades ago, now represent something closer to the core of how we hear this music. Modern orchestras have assimilated much of what Mr. Gardiner and his peers assert with regard to “historically informed” style.

Here was an “Egmont” Overture of granitic solidity and feline insinuation, with springy rhythms and undulant sway. Natural trumpets blazed gloriously in perfect pitch; strings held fast at paces verging on the chaotic. The demonic energy and heroic mien we associate with the Beethoven of legend was present and possessive.

Fundamental to a gripping account of the Symphony No. 7 was Mr. Gardiner’s taut rhythmic conception, brilliantly negotiated by players light-years advanced over their forebears in the period-instrument revival in terms of security and style. The Allegretto was sinuous and haunting, the finale joyously visceral. And from fate’s knock at the onset of the Fifth Symphony — as close to a universally known gesture as anything in music history — Mr. Gardiner wrought Beethoven fresh and strange, with gutsy, brash and rasping instrumental voices united in triumph.