The Beethoven 250 Festival at the Harris Theater got a rousing start on Thursday night with Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, and the Monteverde Choir offering vivacious renditions of Ludwig van Beethhoven’s final two symphonies, Symphony No. 8 in F-major Op. 93 and Symphony No. 9 in d-minor, Op. 125. The orchestra, founded by Gardiner, performs and records symphonic works of Beethoven and his 19th century successors using original instruments and historically accurate performance techniques. The choir, also founded by Gardiner, performs a historically broader repertoire, but with the same attention to accurate performance styles.
This was the first of five concerts that offer all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies at the Harris Theater. Like string quartets, piano sonatas, and cello sonatas, Ludwig van Beethoven’s symphonies run the entire range of his career, starting with two early works patterned after Mozart and Haydn, six middle works in Beethoven’s own revolutionary style, and a final work breaking all previously established bounds. They also thoroughly explore and capture the widely varied moods and feelings that Beethoven’s new compositional techniques allowed. As a single body of work, Beethoven’s nine symphonies unlocked the emotional potential of music and impacted audiences more than any other.
The festival opened Thursday in a rather odd way with Beethoven’s final two symphonies going first. In many ways, of all Beethoven’s symphonies, the 8th symphony comes closest to the models Beethoven inherited from Haydn and Mozart, so going first seems rather fitting. In opening remarks, Gardiner noted that this is Beethoven’s most cheerful symphony, and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique gave it an appropriately sunny rendition. However, after finishing his remarks, Gardiner set the microphone down and plunged right into the work without any pause. The orchestra didn’t seem ready, and the opening measures were rather disjointed. Things came together quickly and the sound was much crisper in the repeat.
The performance was especially noteworthy in honoring the wide dynamic variations the 8th symphony offers. The middle section of the opening movement is famous for a gradual crescendo that ends in a super loud, triple fortissimo, which is very rare in music. Gardiner gave it a perfectly measured treatment, milking it for all of its dramatic potential.
After the first few measures, the only real challenge was the balance between the strings and winds/brass. The opening movement ends and the second movement begins with quiet passages of melody on the strings backed up by repeated notes on the winds/brass. The strings were a bit too quiet, which is a challenge when using original instruments that predate enhancements to accommodate larger concert halls.
While the inclusion of a minuet dance movement is very reminiscent of Beethoven’s predecessors, one feature of the 8th Symphony is pure Beethoven: the extended ending of the finale, which is long even by this composer’s standards. Gardiner’s approach captured it well.
It was also a nice touch to have the violins and violas standing through the 8th Symphony, but they were sitting for the first three movements of the work following the intermission, arguably the greatest of all symphonies, Symphony No. 9 in d-minor, Op. 125. This work, the only symphony from Beethoven’s late period, offers many features typical of his late works: extraordinary length, unusual harmonic development, extended sets of variations, and baroque counterpoint.
In terms of symphonic development, it is the first symphony ever to include vocals, and what a vocal presentation it is! Borrowing German text from Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy, Beethoven follows 50 minutes of intensity and passion with one of the most beautiful and warm themes ever concocted. Starting on the cellos and basses, it slowly builds to a wonderful climax that dissonantly heralds the entry of the vocals. Sentimental as he is, this reviewer is always brought to tears during good performances, and Thursday’s certainly was.
The overall performance was a bit faster than normally heard, which can result in rushed transitions. But Gardiner handled them well, and the nuances were generally evident. The opening Allegro ma non troppo; un poco Maestoso is Beethoven at his most dramatic. The precise orchestral interactions of melodic lines that frequently transition between the instruments came through, and the violins were especially tight in the flourishes toward the end of the opening and recap.
Precision carried through to the Scherzo-like second movement, which opens like a fugue but quickly breaks down into even greater levels of drama, with a tuneful middle section. Additional contrast was provided by a lovely performance of the slow set of variations in the third movement. The only problem in the opening three movements was a recurring issue of uneven playing by the horns.
All problems were cast aside in a fabulous performance of the finale. The orchestra shone brilliantly in the opening instrumental sections, but the Monteverde Choir stole the show with marvelous intonation and verbal phrasing, as did the quartet. Substitute bass Matthew Rose started things off with a compelling call to joy and the initial rendering of Ode to Joy. He was soon joined by the choir. Rose clicked with the other soloists, soprano Lucy Crowe, contralto Jess Dandy, and tenor Ed Lyon. Together they brought a delightful blend. Vibratos were perfectly synced, and each voice was clear and recognizable.
Excellent performances of Beethoven’s 9th symphony bring an audience to its feet like no other music can, and Thursday night’s did. It was a memorable way to start the Beethoven 250 Festival at the Harris Theater.
Normal order is restored tonight with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C-major, Op. 21. That program includes the earliest rendition of his Lenore Overture, No. 1, excerpts from his music for the ballet Creatures of Prometheus, and the vocal aria Ah Perfido! Tomorrow night offers another early work, Symphony No. 2 in D-major, Op. 36, and one of the works that truly set Beethoven apart from all of his predecessors, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat-Major, Op. 55, Eroica.
Following a day-long break, the festival continues on Monday with Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60, and the most well-known of the nine, Symphony No. 5 in c-minor, Op. 67. The festival concludes on Tuesday with the first symphony ever to follow a program and deviate from the traditional four-movement structure used by Haydn and Mozart, Symphony No. 6, Op. 68, Pastoral. The final work is my personal favorite, Symphony No. 7 in A-Major, Op. 92.
All performances take place at Harris Theater of Music and Dance at Millennium Park, 7:30 pm. Ticket prices range from $35 to $150. Click here for more information.