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Friday, November 18, 2011

Concert Review: Owning Beethoven

The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique at Carnegie Hall.
Ludwig van Beethoven.
Thursday night at Carnegie Hall featured the second of two concerts by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. For the past two decades, this British ensemble has specialized in playing Beethoven, using only instruments from the composer's lifetime.

The concert featured Beethoven's Third (Eroica) and Fourth Symphonies, under the baton of Orchestre founder and period performance specialist Sir John Eliot Gardiner. The show opened with the overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, the opener of the composer's lone ballet score. It was played as a vigorous, spicy amuse-bouche, setting the table for the meal to come.

Although the program placed the Fourth before the intermission, the first symphony played was the Eroica. Its sudden start, with two sharp raps on the timpani caught the audience off-balance. Occasionally the sound was marred by an overtaxed violin or a balky horn, but the musicians' passion and Beethoven's genius overcame these obstacles to enjoyment.

In the first movement, Sir John Eliot delved deeply into the inner workings of Beethoven's innovative score. The famed funeral march carried extra weight when played by the raucous slide trumpets and natural horns. A chipper solo on the principal oboe led off the Scherzo, the rumbustuous dance movement, and another of Beethoven's innovations.

The last-minute switch of the Third and Fourth on the program might have something to do with the Prometheus overture. Beethoven took the principal theme for the finale of the Eroica from the concluding part of that ballet. He developed this simple theme into a bewildering set of variations, including a colossal fugue. The O.R.R. responded to this superb material, lending grace and lift to the variations, bringing the whole piece home with its powerful final chords.

The Fourth is one of the less frequently played Beethoven symphonies. It is usually relegated to the position of curtain-raiser, either to one of its more famous brethren or some grandiose work by another composer. By moving it to the second half of the evening, Sir John Eliot made the symphony stand on its own merits. The slow, dramatic introduction led into a whirling Allegro. This dancing, fast movement had an earthy, organic feel.

The slow movement was played with delicacy. The muscular third movement, a tipsy Scherzo, might be the sound of Austrian rustics, stopping at the local heurige for a few glasses of spring wine, probably getting ready for the third movement of the Pastoral It led directly into the wild celebrations of the finale, played with enthusiasm and power despite an occasional squall from the horns.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.