The Beethoven 250 Festival at the Harris Theater continued on Saturday night with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique offering excellent performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony no. 2 in D-major Op. 36 and Symphony no. 3 in E-flat-major, Op. 55 (Eroica). 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. This was the hump-day third of five concerts that offer all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies at the Harris Theater.
The program represented the transition between the composer’s early and middle periods. Although written in 1802-3 at a time when Beethoven was struggling with his worsening deafness, the second symphony is one of his sunnier creations. While it offers hints of things to come in places like the ending of the opening movement and the inclusion of a fun Scherzo instead of a dance minuet, it very much sticks to the models pioneered by Haydn and Mozart.
Two years later the third symphony broke all molds and unveiled a new compositional style and construction that was uniquely Beethoven’s. He originally intended to dedicate the third symphony to Napoleon, but when the leader of France turned the republic into an empire, Beethoven tore off the cover and renamed it Eroica, in memory of a hero.
Regarding the second symphony, this reviewer has never been especially fond of it, so any performance that generates interest is a good thing. Gardner’s rendition extracted every ounce of verve and excitement to be had from this music, starting from the Adagio introduction to the first movement. In the Allegro that followed, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique was crisp, clear, and tight; issues of balance between the strings and winds/brass that were evident in Thursday’s performance were nowhere present Saturday night. The ending was where the magic came out with a wonderful buildup of tension and suspense.
The second symphony’s slow movement is one of the sweetest in all of Beethoven’s symphonies, and Gardiner and his orchestra showed off a lush and delicate touch, handling the lovely melodic phrases with great warmth and charm. Of the Scherzo, which this reviewer has always found to be thematically weak, the orchestra provided interest with intricate ensemble interaction, especially between the first and second violins.
Following intermission, Gardiner and his players took up the real reason for attending this concert, Beethoven’s breathtaking and revolutionary Eroica symphony, and breathtaking this performance was. Every second of this piece breaks new ground. As if to emphasize this point, the violins and violas played standing up for every one of those 2,700 seconds that comprise this 45-minute work.
Right from the opening introduction, which, unlike the two-minute introduction of the second symphony, is comprised of just two loud E-flat chords, the first movement breaks out a new path of thematic and musical development. Previously, sonata-form movements had primary and secondary themes that are related, but this movement has several more themes that morph from one to another. Beethoven uses the different orchestra sections and soloists to move between these themes, and excellent performances capture the transitions with fluidity and precision. The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique seamlessly passed the melodies between various soloists and orchestra sections with no hint of any instrumental break.
Another Beethoven innovation in the first movement is the extended middle section, which has not one, but two climaxes. Gardiner extracted every ounce of tension in the lead up to the super dramatic first climax, which is comprised of highly dissonant chords. The tight phrasing in the strings leading up to the chords was noteworthy, but the way Gardiner exited them was especially memorable. The movement’s extended ending was perfect. The woodwinds can get buried in the sound, but not this time. Everything came through clearly.
The Eroica’s slow second movement is one of the greatest funeral marches ever written. From the rumbling in the cellos and bases that open the movement, Beethoven takes the energy and exuberance from the first movement in a totally different direction. There is a large variety of passion and intensity, which Gardiner and the orchestra captured well. It is easy to build up the intensity too quickly, but subtly was evident everywhere Saturday night.
The only sag in the performance was the trio in the third movement Scherzo. Beethoven wrote a hunt-style horn call in three part harmony that was a bit a shaky at first. There was also a missed passage in the woodwinds, but the excellent performance of the movement’s main sections made up for it.
As if there was anything left to improve upon, Beethoven saved the biggest innovations for the Erioca finale, an amazing set of variations on a theme he had previously used to conclude the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus and for a set of variations for solo piano. Gardiner started the opening flourish without break from the Scherzo, and as the variations progressed, the orchestra showed off terrific dexterity with interplay between soloists in chamber music settings and larger orchestral sections.
Notwithstanding a couple, minor challenges on Saturday night, the overall effect was stunning. This reviewer relishes performances like this.
After skipping a day, 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 this reviewer’s 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.