Beethoven in Costa Mesa, California
The Orange County Register, by Timothy Mangan, November 2012

Conductor John Eliot Gardiner and his London-based musicians, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and Monteverdi Choir, have been around awhile now but their Beethoven is still startling.

In two Philharmonic Society concerts Monday and Tuesday in Segerstrom Concert Hall they performed two late masterpieces, the "Missa Solemnis" and the Ninth Symphony, and, by making them sound old, made them anew. The large audiences assembled for the concerts went fairly crazy at the end.

The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, of course, plays on period instruments – instruments from Beethoven's time or replicas thereof, the strings made of gut (not steel), the brass without valves, the woodwinds of a more primitive design. The sound they collectively make is very different from that of a modern orchestra – raw, edgy, without an ounce of fat in the tone.

The Monteverdi Choir features just 35 singers (a number thought more in keeping with the period) who perform like athletes. Together with Gardiner's super-fleet tempos (which honor the composer's sometimes controversial metronome markings), the result is in-your-face Beethoven, sizzling Beethoven, almost punk Beethoven.

There's a lot of scholarship involved in these interpretations, but the end-product is not stuffy, but a kind of restoration (or what passes as one; the debates are endless), a removal of accumulated dirt and varnish. Take all of the antique trappings away, though, and you've still got something special, because Gardiner and his musicians, in modern lingo, bring it, and relentlessly so. One was both exhilarated and exhausted by the performances.

Beethoven considered the "Missa Solemnis" (Solemn Mass) his greatest work; he is seen holding the score in the most famous of his late portraits. It is the work of a deaf composer and sounds like it in the sense of its extreme intricacy and the extreme, unpractical demands it makes on the musicians. As a dedication to his patron, at the top of the score Beethoven wrote, "From the heart – may it go again – to the heart!" Monday's performance captured that heart and the exclamation point.

If the "Missa Solemnis" is an expression of Beethoven's religious belief, it was one of no mere piety, but wild in its feeling. The Kyrie, Gloria and Credo throw so many notes on the page in such blistering counterpoint, in such jagged rhythms and metrical complexity, you feel he may be showing off, but at the same time forging a gift worthy of God. The advantage of Gardiner's performance was that, with its lighter textures, it allowed you to hear more of the notes than usual, and, in its nimbleness, it hurdled all obstacles with ease. The Credo's fugue was perhaps the most robust I've ever heard.

In the closing Sanctus and Angus Dei a more serene and intimate mood is created. Here, the musicians brought a myriad of color to bear, a daintiness and silkiness of phrase, a feeling that the music was floating a few feet off the ground.

In the Ninth on Tuesday, Gardiner's way with phrasing was especially interesting. The long phrases were broken up into smaller units, as if each word and every comma in a sentence were being transmitted in the shading, tempo and articulation of a voice. The quick tempos gathered these short phrases in surprising ways, mounting in intensity. Even more, this manner of music-making focused the energies of the musicians continuously. Every note seemed to have import, and the piece gamboled along on its toes.

Gardiner preceded the Ninth with a short cantata, the rarely performed "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage," Op. 112. The Monteverdi Choir jabbed and thundered brilliantly, both nights. The vocal soloists – Elisabeth Meister, Jennifer Johnston, Michael Spyres, Matthew Rose – calmly and graciously handled all of Beethoven's unreasonable ultimatums. The ORR was the ORR: gritty, spirited and electric.

A healthy byproduct of these performances is that they forced listeners to listen actively and critically. In the silence after the last note of the "Missa Solemnis," an audience member, overcome or off his meds, blurted out, "Oh, thank you!" At any rate, it expressed a good many listeners' feelings both Monday and Tuesday.