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Prom 33: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Gardiner | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 33: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Gardiner

Prom 33: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Gardiner

A raw and uncompromising approach to a pair of revolutionary symphonies

Taking no prisoners: Sir John Eliot Gardiner cuts a swathe through Beethoven and Berlioz© Chris Christodoulou/BBC

Sir John Eliot Gardiner has made great play for years with the idea that Beethoven’s Fifth is a revolutionary symphony in not only musical but political terms. Accordingly the first bars were a call to arms, taking no heed of a restless Proms audience, or the Albert Hall’s generous acoustic, ploughing into and then through the argument with the joyful fury of a class war demo breaking police lines.

Niceties of intonation and ensemble counted for less in such a febrile atmosphere, but a week on from the Aurora Orchestra’s Beethoven "Pastoral", I wonder if there’s a trend re-emerging for playing Beethoven out of tune. A quarter-century ago and more, when the old instruments were new, and techniques to master them in the development stages, the thrill of buzzing trombones and bassoons, pure-tone violins and flutes, was its own reward. But Gardiner has done as much as anyone in the intervening years to show that accuracy and precision need not be compromised by the colour and violence returned to this music by historically informed first principles.

The sublime if fugitive vision of paradise on the first movement’s last page was disfigured by sour intonationStill, what we heard was surely what Gardiner wanted, for the evening proceeded with an unblended mix of determined perfectionism and fallibility like two elements in a suspension that refuses to settle. When the baton flew from Gardiner’s grasp, another was at hand within a moment. When a first violinist snapped a string, her colleague had a spare instrument ready in a trice. The members of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique played on their feet, just as the Auroras had, with even greater gains in sheer volume and no less damaging losses in dynamic and instrumental balance. Most of the first movement’s loud and soft contrasts went by the board, solo winds often lost in the melee. When the trombones entered in the finale, all bets were off. In between came a flowing slow movement with a lovely sense of line and charming, interpolated ornamentations, then a marvellously questing Scherzo – resolutely ignoring Jonathan del Mar’s edition and playing the repeats of the repeats – which leapt forward one moment and back the next as if our demo had gathered behind a street corner, mustering for the next attack. You know Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power? This was the soundtrack.

The Symphonie fantastique of Berlioz followed, closely, even fussily stage-managed. We waited between the first and second movements for the four harps to be lugged centre stage, then back again after the waltz. A much simpler touch, deft and revealing, was to place the cornet soloist among the strings, who now played with small but obtrusive touches of portamento (and even a little vibrato) apart from one outrageous glissando in the "Scène aux champs". The offstage oboist was stationed not in the gallery as usual but by the stage door, a stone’s throw from his companion on cor anglais: so much for the shepherd’s lonely vigil. Piped bells in the finale may have been authentic in origin but boomed and swelled with peak distortion and all-too-digital reverb.

It was a fascinating and exasperating performance in equal measure. The web of related tempi for the last two movements was superbly judged, the "March to the Scaffold" "nice and slow", as Sir Roger Norrington once observed of Berlioz’s surprising (and mostly ignored) metronome mark, and strutting with militant rather than military swagger until a bizarre cut-off for the hero's execution provoked a burst of applause as if a Parisian claque had been smuggled in. The sublime if fugitive vision of paradise on the first movement’s last page was disfigured by sour intonation, and the "Scène aux champs" had its moments of exquisite torture. Since when did playing in tune go out of fashion?

@PeterQuantrill

Read theartsdesk's reviews of other concerts from the BBC Proms 2015

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