LSO/Gardiner, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

Sir John Eliot Gardiner did not quite begin at the beginning. His Beethoven cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra kicked off with the Second Symphony, and both here and in the devilishly innovative Eighth it was interesting to experience a conductor, who has spent the greater part of his career championing period instruments, revelling in the sheer power and depth of sonority that a contemporary orchestra such as the LSO routinely harnesses. The very first chord of the evening was little short of alarming.

Clearly, Gardiner wanted to begin his cycle with a bang. The long, slow introduction of the Second is like a precis of the year 1802, when Beethoven was wrestling with the awful reality of his enveloping deafness. The symphonies really begin here – it's where the composer began to break through the proverbial sound barrier. And with uncompromising severity, Gardiner and his timpani-dominated orchestra led us through the thickets of this protracted introduction with a sense of uncertainty that we would emerge at the other end. When we did, even the smile of the allegro con brio belied an underlying steel.

The style here was conveyed in the short attacks and impulsive rhythm propelling us all the way to that sensational trumpet-topped dissonance in the coda. Gardiner played throughout the evening on the suspense of Beethoven's dynamic extremes, teasing and tickling us with elegant and capriciously feather-light phrases, only to elbow us in the ribs with the next guffaw.

Between the symphonies was the second of Beethoven's four "Leonore" overtures – less "finished" than the third but infinitely starker dramatically, and certainly more precarious in its development. Gardiner made something quite terrible of the gaping silences and pile-driving chords at its heart. Listening to this you would envision no way out for the opera's imprisoned hero Florestan.

The subversive playfulness of the Eighth Symphony was a release in every sense – time out from real life, blissful denial. It was allegedly Stravinsky's favourite Beethoven symphony, and it's not hard to hear why: expectations are confounded from first to last. Rhythm is again key to enjoying the ride, and Gardiner really used the added sinew of the LSO's lower strings to underline the irresistible momentum of the outer movements.

In between, the rudeness of the scherzo and minuet movements were tempered with pages of great beauty.

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