CLASSICAL MUSIC Concertgebouw / Gardiner Barbican Centre

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The Independent Culture
The fame of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra drew a capacity audience to the Barbican Centre on Sunday afternoon. As one of the Barbican's "Great Orchestras of the World" they presented an impressive programme under John Eliot Gardiner, focusing their outstanding solo and ensemble skills as sharply on Berlioz's La Mort de Cleopatre as on Schubert's Ninth Symphony.

It is perhaps only in an era that has given birth, as ours has, to a musical dialect based on texture and sonority rather than thematic line and functional harmony, that Berlioz's astonishing originality can reveal its deepest secrets. One can imagine how La Mort de Cleopatre, that amazing product of the composer's 26th year, must have sounded to listeners brought up on Austro-German musical methods. It is a work whose almost expressionist intensity and apparently dislocated syntax separate it from almost all other music of its time and seem to presage things that were to happen over a century later.

It sounds staggeringly new to today's listeners, and with the charismatic mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter living completely within Berlioz's sharply envisioned world the music generated a majestic foreboding and tragic power. Gardiner led the orchestra through the composer's inspired unorthodoxies with urgent understanding, and the musical fabric shuddered and lamented to monumental effect. It is a mystery why a work that speaks so readily to us has been neglected in our concert halls.

A product of the Austro-German tradition which the iconoclastic Berlioz seemed so independent of, Schubert's Ninth Symphony is also in its way radically new in manner and expression. The hugely expansive paragraphs, often built on arm-breaking ostinato patterns, occasioned mirth and sheer disbelief when first placed before an English orchestra, and one has a certain sympathy with that apparently philistine response: the string writing remains arduous to this day and it encapsulated an unprecedented world of feeling, Olympian in its rhythmic unfolding.

The Concertgebouw's string section settled to their Herculean task with energy and bravery, and when the Finale confronted tired players with its cruel intensification, the wildly galloping rhythms were projected with the utmost vigour. Gardiner sustained a driving tempo here, but sometimes failed to point those transitional moments in rhythmic or harmonic progress which indicate a human rather than a mechanistic touch.

The pointing of details in large-scale processes, which prevents stiffness of movement and a sense of automatic progress, is needed in the apparently relaxed world of the Andante no less than in the more obviously driven movements, and there were times here when the players again needed to be eased round a corner rather than marched past it. Still, the charm of much of the playing was entrancing, with exquisite wind solos and those trumpet and string figures that adorn the recapitulation with Wunderhorn- like magic beautifully taken.