Classical: Liberte, egalite and Beethoven's 5th

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The Independent Culture


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.