Saturday’s matinee program at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall may have looked pretty boilerplate on paper, offering Beethoven’s familiar “Egmont” Overture, Third Symphony (“Eroica”) and Fifth Symphony. But there was nothing remotely routine in the performances by the period-instrument ensemble, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, under its founder-conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner. In fact, an incandescent reading of the “Eroica” brought a cheering audience to its feet before intermission. This was playing that demonstrated what quantum leaps historically informed performance has taken since its early stirrings over a half-century ago.
The burnished sound of the orchestra was what struck one first. Gone, it seems, are the days when the mention of period-instrument Beethoven would conjure expectations of wheezy, insubstantial strings, wince-inducing brass playing and comically fast, straight-jacketing tempos. Saturday brought string playing that was lean and cleanly executed but also handsomely dark and substantial. The rustic horns gave off more than a whiff of the hunt, but were handled with an astonishing degree of security and nuance. Historically informed performances are prone to favor a wind-dominated balance, sometimes at the expense of a strong string presence. But here, the character-rich and notably suave winds cut smartly through the string textures without stealing undue focus.
This careful balancing act was, of course, Gardiner’s work. All afternoon, the conductor teased out details in Beethoven’s scoring that made the music sound at once inevitable and new to the ear — a counter-melody in the second violins highlighted here, a rhythmic figure muted there (to allow interesting harmonic material to register more clearly), wind players asked to stand or to hoist-up their instruments like members of a swing-band to thrust their solo lines more prominently into the aural spotlight. And Gardiner’s left-right placement of the first and second violins, along with his decision to place brass and winds on tiered risers, paid dividends in timbral transparency throughout the program.
Gardiner’s interpretive profile 20 years ago often trended toward brusque tempos and percussive accents almost to a fault. It was instructive to hear how his approach to the “Eroica” has evolved, where elasticity of tempo now provides breathing space for phrasing, and his willingness to pull dynamics down to a whisper prompts a more intimate connection with tender moments in the score. But his reading also possessed tremendous punch — it all sounded quite “revolutionnaire” while allowing itself license to wax “romantique” as well — and the “Egmont” Overture was cut from the same cloth. If the mighty Fifth Symphony initially felt a bit anticlimactic after the two-fisted knockout of the “Egmont” and “Eroica,” that was due to fleet, relentless tempos in the first movement that hewed a little bit too rigidly to Beethoven’s metronome marks, without the compensating give-and-take Gardiner had found in the other works. But in a galvanic, no-holds-barred performance of the final movement, Gardiner and the orchestra reminded us how peerless they can be in Beethoven.