A crowning end to a journey of shared discovery
I don’t know if you’ve seen the BBC TV programme “So you think you can dance” – I can’t claim to be an aficionado as I’ve only seen it once – but the premise isn’t exactly hard to grasp. A group of dancers, from different stylistic backgrounds (modern dance, ballet, hip-hop and so on) are set the challenge of dancing in a style that’s alien to their training. I mention it because when Sir John Eliot Gardiner started this multi-year Beethoven symphony cycle there was definitely the feel of the ballet star meeting the hip-hop dancer (and, not surprisingly, there was excitement and drama aplenty from the start). Now three years in, the cycle has reached the Ninth… And the spirit of the dance hovered over everything.
What to pair with No 9? It’s always an intriguing proposition if you’re sticking to the symphonies. The Fifth makes for a rather (over-)dramatic evening and can of course upstage the main attraction; the Eighth is a nice entr’acte and works well, but the First (as tonight) is the Alpha to the Ninth’s Omega. And far from demonstrating how far the journey has been from 1 to 9, it superbly lays out many of the concerns that will stay with Beethoven for the length of the voyage: the ability to sustain tension, the dovetailing of lines to draw out the drama (Minuet and Trio of No 1), the theatricality of gesture (the finale of No 1), a willingness to push back the boundaries of the form as inherited from Haydn and, already, a confidence in his handling of the orchestra.
The LSO and Gardiner have found a particularly invigorating common ground in their approach to these nine extraordinary scores. When they embarked on the cycle, the LSO/Haitink cycle was still in the memory, but this was the turning over of a new page, and an exploration of a sonority and performance style that had a genuine sense of shared discovery written all over it: almost vibrato-less strings (with divided fiddles), hard sticks for the timpani, wonderfully punchy brass playing, and – not exactly a stylistic decision – some gloriously flavoursome playing by the magnificent wind section. Add to that Gardiner’s own Monteverdi Choir – a truly crack ensemble which has the punch of a group twice the size – and you had laid out in front of you the ideal tools for a performance virtually guaranteed to move, as well as thrill.
Tempi were swift, but generally not hard-driven: the Scherzo of the Ninth plunged forward, only to be outdone by the Trio: burbling, light on its toes, and as swift as an arrow. But when languour was required – as in the slow movement – Gardiner was happy to relax a little. Like a walk through woods that gradually lead you upwards without your realising it, he built the movement with a wonderfully sure touch, each harmonic lift feeling entirely natural and yet at the same time just a little surprising.
The finale was beautifully judged – and come the vocal section, Gardiner’s love of stage-management had the choir standing voice by voice: first the basses to respond to the soloist, then the tenors and altos, and finally the sopranos: inconsequential, but strangely powerful. The solo quartet, while not putting “a girdle round the earth”, had a nice internal balance of northern and southern hemispheres: a Welsh soprano, a Dutch mezzo, an Australian tenor and a South African bass. And they worked well together.
The finale was constructed with a sure sense of its destination, and the high-octane singing of the magnificent Monteverdi Choir guaranteed that the work ended on a truly clarion note. This has been quite a journey, and, I suspect, has inspired this notoriously hard-headed ensemble. The shared bows hinted at more than respect for this famously demanding conductor. How about some Haydn next?