With John Eliot Gardiner on the podium, Beethoven rocked.
The 69-year-old British conductor brought his Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique and Monteverdi Choir to Carnegie Hall for enthralling, breakneck-paced performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and "Missa solemnis (solemn Mass)," part of a tour that ends with performances in Costa Mesa, Calif.
Stripping away years of varnish, Gardiner and his period-instrument ensemble made both pieces sound new again. Gardiner believes in the composer's original markings — his Ninth took just 61 minutes Friday night, more than 10 minutes under the average and 18 minutes faster than Karl Boehm's 1981 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic.
The result was athletic, at times frenzied playing by the string section. With a lighter sound — gut is used for strings instead of metal and the brass have no valves — there is a clean sheen to the performance and the conversations Beethoven wrote between the sections come through more without the introspection of more leisurely paced versions.
Acclaimed for his Beethoven performances, Gardiner conducted these same two pieces at the 1996 Lincoln Center Festival. In a marketplace crowded with renditions of the Ninth, his stands out. The performance also included the seldom-heard "Meeresstille und gluecklichte Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage)" a 10-minute cantata that gives insight into the direction Beethoven would head as he composed the Ninth nearly a decade later.
Bass Matthew Rose was booming and mezzo Jennifer Johnson and soprano Elisabeth Meister sounded ethereal. Tenor Michael Spyres was slightly underpowered.
"Missa solemnis," completed in 1823, a year before the Ninth, originally was intended to be played at Archduke Rudolf's elevation to Archbishop of Olmuetz but Beethoven couldn't complete it in time. With its use of four vocal soloists, there are echoes of the Ninth in much of the writing across the five movements. And concertmaster Peter Hanson had a beautiful, sweet violin in the Sanctus on Saturday.
Gardiner's tour began in September with a performance at Pisa's Duomo and moved on to Cologne, Germany; Amsterdam; Baden-Baden, Germany; Bern, Switzerland; Vienna; Budapest, Hungary; London; and Chapel Hill, N.C.; before arriving in New York.
The tour ends Monday and Tuesday at the Segerstrom Concert Hall in California, where the Philharmonic Society of Orange County says it will refund the ticket price to anyone who attends the second night's performance and doesn't think it is the best Beethoven Ninth he or she has heard.
Based on the New York performance, it's hard to envision the need to return any cash.