Beethoven 5 & 7 in Gramophone
By Edward Seckerson, Gramophone,  January 2013
(SDG717)

Beethoven Symphonies 5 & 7

So palpable is the excitement of these live performances that it almost comes as a shock that the applause has been excised. I was out of my seat at the end of the Seventh and I can only assume that a patch was made of the final pages, because no audience could conceivably have contained itself.

From the very start, the cut-to-the-bone immediacy of the sound puts you up close and personal to the performance, lending a granite strength to the crunch of those chords and the rosiny resilience of those striding string scales. The dancing flute theme is really up-tempo and the blare of natural horns at the tutti brings on an earthiness, a rawness, to the proceedings. The dance starts here, the ‘apotheosis’ comes later.

John Eliot Gardiner and his resplendent Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique rejoice in the sheer physicality of the music, the bounding rhythms, the stomping accents. There’s an implicit delirium in this music that would culminate in a dance of death were it not so life-affirming. Gardiner’s tempo for the second-movement Allegretto is significantly slower than the metronome (as witness Chailly) but the relationship between the wind and strings (period instruments far more equal in the balance) and the give and take between subject and countersubject lends an expressive mobility. There’s still an air of slow dance about it, breathlessly superseded by the scherzo with its whiplash reflexes (so much speedier with a leaner, meaner ensemble) and the excitement of sustained natural trumpets in the Trio. The hair-raising reiterations of the finale, driven to the point of exhaustion – the most exhilarating kind of exhaustion – are accentuated by the immediacy of the sound, and the penultimate piledriving climax and coda are absolutely thrilling, with brazen horns again dominating.

The Fifth registers marginally lower on the Richter scale but is again characterised by a propulsive energy. The plangency of that isolated movement of reflexion for solo oboes in the first movement is eerily poignant here and I love, too, the way Gardiner brings home variations of the second movement. The roar into the light of the finale is tremendous, still more the mounting jubilation as a gruff, overfed bassoon signals the C major home stretch.

These are the kind of performances that remind us of what a revolution of reassessment period-instrument bands provoked. The shock of newness in Beethoven prevails.