MUSIC / Too perfect for his own good: Opera North refused to work with him, he refused to work with the Royal Opera House. What is it about John Eliot Gardiner that critics love and orchestras loathe? The conductor gives some pointers to Stephen Johnson

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If everything had gone according to plan, London might well have seen three John Eliot Gardiner triumphs this summer. First there was the Queen Elizabeth Hall Don Giovanni in June - thunderous applause with torrents of critical praise soon following. Tomorrow comes the Proms Beethoven Fifth with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, which - if it's anything like the new recording (soon to be released on DG's Archiv label as part of a Beethoven cycle), or the concert performance Gardiner and his orchestra gave in Barcelona in March - should be another uplifting, musically revealing experience. The third 'triumph', however, remains one of the great musical might-have-beens - Gardiner's own production of Cos fan tutte at the Royal Opera House, cancelled due to . . . well, why was it cancelled? Fortunately Gardiner doesn't seem at all reluctant to give his side of the affair.

Problem No 1 was the cast Covent Garden had offered: Amanda Roocroft as Fiordiligi and Susan Graham as Dorabella. 'Vocally that's fine, but Amanda is about 5ft 3in and Susan is about 5ft 11in, and the whole thing about my Cos is the complete identity of the two sisters. That's one reason I feel they have to be two sopranos.

'Nicholas Payne (the Royal Opera's director) wouldn't budge on that one. Then the technical director went off to Lisbon to get the sets - beautiful they were, with such a strong flavour of 18th-century Naples - and found that all but 10 per cent of them had either been burnt, recycled or purloined. So Nicholas Payne said, that's it. And I just thought, par for the course. I haven't conducted at the Garden since 1973. I haven't been asked to take part in the Purcell celebrations next year either. I've got a terrible reputation, though.'

I'm glad Gardiner mentioned it, because I was just trying to work out how to ask him tactfully about the reputation angle . . . How does he see it - and account for it? 'I think, like a lot of reputations, it's based on about 10 per cent fact and 90 per cent fiction. I'm not easy. I don't suffer fools gladly. I insist on very high standards. But I think if you ask most of the singers - the solo singers who work with me regularly, like Sylvia McNair, or Ann Sophie von Otter or Anthony Rolfe-Johnson - they would say I was supportive.' And the orchestras - the English Baroque Soloists and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique - how do they respond to Gardiner? 'They're very supportive of me. Of course there are tensions, but on the whole it's a very good relationship. I think the problems came when I was young and green and probably put a few backs up - and mud sticks.' Indeed it does: he failed to land the job of music director at Opera North after the orchestra refused to work with him.

There is a paradox here. If letters pages of record magazines, or the response to Norman Lebrecht's The Maestro Myth, are anything to go by, nostalgia is epidemic in musical Britain today. The great podium dictators of the past, brought back to life by CD, can never have been more hungrily appreciated. The suggestion is often that authoritative performances demand authoritarian conductors. And here is a conductor who gets powerful, challenging, authoritative results, and what is he criticised for? Authoritarianism. 'Oh, the behaviour of some old tyrants was appalling, and often unpardonable. But if you want strong personality, strong interpretations, you have to take some of the rough with the smooth. I guess that's what a lot of people, especially managements, are afraid to do. And I guess that's the way fate intends it for me. I'd rather do my own thing with my own musicians than be a square peg in a round hole.'

At this point, one or two readers may be reminded of Gardiner's comments in last year's BBC1 Omnibus on conductors, in which the musical end-product of one popular modern tyrant, Herbert von Karajan, was described as 'almost evil'. 'But this is essential,' says Gardiner, with rising passion. 'My objection to Karajan is that he made himself the focal point of the whole experience. However musical he was - a genius, in many ways - he saw it through his personality - and it wasn't a very nice personality anyway. I think conducting is about being a medium - the other kind of 'conductor' through which a current flows. If you block that with your own personality you're stopping the real message getting through. It's so different from someone like Toscanini. He was ruthless, but it was ruthlessness in pursuit of an ideal.'

One thing that struck me watching Gardiner's Barcelona Beethoven Fifth was the sheer physical involvement of the players - anything less like a regimented, cowed orchestra, or a bored, overworked London orchestra playing Beethoven for the umpteenth time, is hard to imagine. 'It's not something I actively solicit, but if everything else is right - the players' imaginations have been fired, the audience is attentive - they will give and give. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe is like that, too, and their collaboration with Nikolaus Harnoncourt has been extraordinary.' So Harnoncourt is an important figure for Gardiner? 'I revere him, even though I quarrel internally with so much of what he does. Perhaps the problem is that he's sometimes so fascinated with minute details that he loses that sense of overall shape. My sense of structure is often violated, and yet my ear is constantly fascinated.'

One thing even Gardiner's detractors will allow him is that he does have a feeling for structure, whether in a Bach Passion, a Mozart opera (recitatives and arias tautly, thrillingly paced) or a Beethoven symphony. But others - including, strikingly, the arch- 'purist' Christopher Hogwood - have also noted a high emotional charge. When it comes to Beethoven, that great dramatiser and transformer of personal experience, does Gardiner feel there has to be a personal involvement? Does he identify with Beethoven?

'I'm not saying any of us could encompass this personally, yet the feature of him I love is his immense sense of awe at the Godhead - whatever that is - and with it the sense of one's own total insignificance. That's what I find so wonderful in the Missa Solemnis, and I think it's just under the surface in a lot of the symphonies. There's a feeling that there is a divine presence, and that we can touch it somehow. Beethoven is the great aspirer, and, as a musician interpreting it, one has to aspire with him. Another thing I love is his complete disregard for technical difficulty - that's something that becomes more alive on the instruments of his time. But it's only pardonable in Beethoven because of his sheer substance and the intensity of everything he does.'

The big uncertainty about tomorrow's performance is not whether Gardiner the conductor can find these essentials in Beethoven, but whether he can bring it all off in the Albert Hall. How will the quieter period instruments come over in those vast spaces? 'It will be great for the Prommers, hopefully it will be good for listeners at home on Radio 3, and probably it will be grim for anyone sitting in a box. There are several programmes I've refused to do in the Albert Hall for that reason. We perform in London so rarely, and all the other halls are awful. The QEH is OK, but the rest . . . The Proms mean a lot to me. William Glock was my great encourager, and I love that responsive audience. English audiences can be so reluctant to show their true feelings, and that can be pretty sapping of an orchestra's energies. But the Prom audience gives, and my orchestra deserves to experience that. I'm hoping it will really ignite.'

Gardiner at the Proms: 8pm tomorrow, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (071-589 8212) and live on R3

(Photograph omitted)