Interpreting Beethoven: How Authentic?

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When British early-music conductor John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique storm Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night, they’ll be equipped with the musical equivalent of muskets and pitchforks – valve-less horns, wooden flutes and gut-stringed violins – to present three works of Beethoven.

The grandly-named orchestra, based in London, was founded in 1989 to push the boundaries of “authentic” performance practice closer to the present. As many concertgoers know, historical performance practice began as an effort in the 1950s to perform music of the pre-Baroque closer to the way in which it was heard in those eras. Gardiner expanded the movement by recognizing that instruments from the Romantic era had distinctly different designs from those today.

In some quarters a divide opened up between the traditionalists and the period-instrument camp: the latter’s members were referred to as sandal-wearing "vegetarians" for their stripped-down approach. Their sound was criticized as being bloodless and dry. Musicologist Richard Taruskin argued, with insight and bile, that it’s impossible to re-imagine what concerts actually sounded like 200 years ago, and period-instrument practitioners merely reflect modernist assumptions about how all music should sound.

When the ORR’s complete Beethoven recording came out in the 1990s, listeners could hear an immediate difference: Instead of the clunky pace and weighty sonorities found in modern, 100-member-plus symphony orchestras, Gardiner delivered brisk tempos, light textures and a sharper, vibrato-less sound. Other early-music performers also put their stamp on Beethoven, including Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players.

Gradually, the old divisions between modern and authentic blurred as both camps drew from each others' innovations. Gardiner continues to lead his period-instrument groups (which include the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists) but he has also conducted traditional orchestras. As Martin Kettle wrote in The Guardian recently, “Gardiner is part of the establishment now. The traditional orchestras have embraced his nouvelle cuisine approach.” Kettle noted that Gardiner was himself in the audience during Riccardo Chailly's recent Beethoven cycle with the (modern) Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra “to hear how the old iconoclasm is becoming the new normal.”

Yes, some audiences will take sides – whether for the massive string sections and beefed-up choruses of the modern orchestra or the gutsy, lean sound of the “vegetarians.” Which do you prefer? Before Wednesday night's broadcast on WQXR, listen to these two examples from Beethoven's Third Symphony and weigh in below (keeping in mind that other factors should be considered including acoustics and recording techniques).

On modern instruments (the Leipzig Gewandhaus led by Kurt Masur):

On period instruments (the Hanover Band led by Monica Huggett):