With the rat race mostly run, conductors in their later years tend to slow down their tempos. They take time to smell the roses, to search for something new in pieces they've conducted all their lives. They dig for meaning and rest tired bones.
But there are exceptions. Toscanini sped up in his final recordings. His Beethoven became staggeringly fast. Monday and Tuesday night at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, the 69-year-old John Eliot Gardiner, who clearly still has something to prove, made Toscanini seem a tortoise.
On these successive nights, Gardiner led his astounding Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and Monteverdi Choir, along with four soloists whose vocal cords were pushed to their biological limits, in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony. The velocities were such that were this a sport, doping might have been suspected.
The plucky Philharmonic Society of Orange County, which presented the concerts, offered audiences a money back guarantee, ready to refund the ticket price ($110 top) to anyone who claimed to have heard a better Beethoven Ninth. So at what may be a record 61 minutes (a full third faster than the slowest of the slow Beethoven Ninths), the bang-for-buck quotient needed to be high. It was.
Tempo, though, is a funny business. The venue makes a difference. According to one theory, Toscanini was making up for the dry acoustics of his recording studio and trying to give the music some bounce.
Instruments make a difference. Gardiner's ORR, which he founded in 1989, plays on the same kinds of instruments as found in Beethoven's day, which meant gut strings and minimal vibrato, wooden flutes and valveless trumpets and horns. They're made for speed (although with great difficulty for the brass).
Historical considerations make a huge difference in how we treat tempo. Both Toscanini and Gardiner meant to honor Beethoven's controversially fast metronome markings. But metronomes were not necessarily reliable in Beethoven's day, and the composer was idealistic — and deaf!
There are other histories to consider as well. Our expectations for Beethoven's music revolve around their high place in the canon of Western civilization. The Ninth, with its concluding "Ode to Joy," is an icon, even. Toscanini meant to elevate Beethoven. Fast, for him, was being true to the music, and his performances were a monitor of the music's vital life signs.
Gardiner, who means to scrub away the residue of nearly two centuries of performing tradition, is, in fact, no less of his time than was Toscanini. His ORR is a modern music machine that happens to use old instruments, a kind of classical music steampunk band. The concerts in Costa Mesa concluded a 10-country tour of these works. The skill set of Gardiner's crew is far beyond anything Beethoven could have imagined possible.
But what was really novel about these performances was the sheer forcefulness of the playing — no twee early music sound, this. The brass blared. Noisy percussion was placed behind plastic shields to protect the hearing of the strings. The 36 members of Monteverdi Choir ripped like a hundred.
The most modern aspect of all was the way Gardiner used his fast speeds to reveal patterns. In the Credo of the Missa Solemnis, Christ didn't gently ascend into Heaven but blasted off. Gravity was defied rather than deified.
And then there was the stillness. All that loud and fast business was given in the context of some exquisitely quiet passages, especially from the chorus. That was particularly notable in the seven-minute (at Gardiner's clip) choral piece, "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage," which preceded the Ninth.
The performance began with an intense hush at the level of perceptibility. But rather than announce serenity, it served as a prologue to elation. Likewise, the mysterious atmosphere that opens the Ninth was no gradual lifting of the mists but full of edgy movement, a setting of the stage by moving real objects.
In the end, Gardiner seemed to be looking at these scores from a distance. At his rapid pace, it was easy to sense large patterns and impossible to relish details, which simply flew by.
No musicians, no matter how well prepared, can find a comfort zone at these tempos, and that was the most modern thing of all. Like contemporary indeterminate or chance music, anything could happen, and sometimes did. It was, for instance, a bad horn night Tuesday. But the steampunk machine hummed and purred and rocked and rolled, and nothing seemed impossible.
The soloists — soprano Elisabeth Meister, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston, tenor Michael Spyres and bass Matthew Rose — sung almost as if in a trance, showing grace under fire, smoothly slipping in and out of the huge machine of which they were an inextricable part. I think the taskmaster Toscanini would have been impressed.