Classical: Liberte, egalite and Beethoven's 5th

ORCHESTRE REVOLUTIONNAIRE ET ROMANTIQUE

BARBICAN LONDON

EVERY AGE re-invents Beethoven in its own image. Every decade, even, puts its own stamp on performing his music. For the Eighties, we experienced a driving, hawkish Beethoven; for the Nineties, a freer and more individual Beethoven with a bit of give and take. So it's possible to see Tuesday's novel presentation of the Fifth Symphony by the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique as the first step towards a fresh perception of the composer in his musical and social context, which I suppose we will have to call joined-up Beethoven.

Before conducting the symphony, Sir John Eliot Gardiner spent an hour making out his case for "lifting the shroud of our listening habits". His idea was to bring out the impact on his symphonies, not of the traditional Viennese heritage of Haydn and Mozart, but of French music at the time of the Revolution. Like many of his contemporaries, Beethoven was fascinated by the huge masses of sound that the likes of Mehul, Cherubini and Gossec unleashed for outdoor performances. They wrote politically charged pieces expressing an urge to freedom close to Beethoven's heart. So Gardiner set about finding their traces in the symphonies.

It's clearly a cause close to Gardiner's own heart; the orchestra's very name identifies with it. He spoke with passion and enthusiasm and appeared to run way over his intended length. But Beethoven a Frenchman? Only the music could give us a chance of believing that and, to make his points, Gardiner conducted extracts that few today could have heard before, from Gossec's "Marche Lugubre" to a grandiose "Hymne Dithyrambique sur la Conjuration de Robespierre" by Rouget de Lisle, the composer of La Marseillaise.

A phrase here, a tune there: in between talking about Beethoven's devotion to the revolutionary ideals while living in deeply reactionary Vienna, Gardiner showed how memories and near-quotes turned up in parts of the Eroica or the Seventh. All composers work like magpies and Beethoven was no exception. Gardiner's party piece was to get the Monteverdi Choir to sing part of the Fifth Symphony's finale to the words "la liberte". It did the trick rousingly. That piece will never again sound like an isolated masterpiece that apparently sprang unprovoked from its creator's brain.

With the French music, unfortunately, there just wasn't enough of it to stick. Perhaps Gardiner didn't believe in the music enough to trust us with complete pieces, yet it needs a longer exposure to start grasping how Beethoven evidently tried to recreate the same impact. More music and fewer words would have got it across better. As it was, the effect began to fade in the face of the Fifth Symphony itself.

This was an intensely fast performance in true Eighties/Nineties period- instrument style, over in little more than half an hour, including every repeat you'd want and at least one you wouldn't. The performers delivered finely judged sounds in the more delicate moments. Would four double-basses be enough? Yes indeed, and they made a terrific attack on their famous Trio entry. Twelve first violins, though, weren't enough to cut through the roaring brass. In 18th-century Paris, according to Mozart, they used many more for his own symphonies and the effect was brilliant. Just another lesson about Austro-German music the French could teach us.

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Arts and Entertainment
Bono throws water at the crowd while the Edge watches as they perform in the band's first concert of their new world tour in Vancouver

MusicThey're running their own restaurants

Voices
The main entrance to the BBC headquarters in London
TV & Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

    Solved after 200 years

    The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

    Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
    Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

    Sunken sub

    Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

    Age of the selfie

    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
    Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

    Not so square

    How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
    Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

    Still carrying the torch

    The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

    ...but history suggests otherwise
    The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

    The bald truth

    How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
    Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

    Tour de France 2015

    Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
    Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

    A new beginning for supersonic flight?

    Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
    I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

    I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

    Latest on the Labour leadership contest
    Froome seals second Tour de France victory

    Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

    Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
    Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

    The uses of sarcasm

    'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
    A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

    No vanity, but lots of flair

    A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
    Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

    In praise of foraging

    How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food