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John Eliot Gardiner's Historical Beethoven At Carnegie Hall

When British early music conductor John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique storm Carnegie Hall tonight at 8 p.m. ET, they'll be equipped with the musical equivalent of muskets and pitchforks — valveless horns, wooden flutes and gut-stringed violins — to present three works by Beethoven.

The grandly named orchestra, based in London, was founded in 1989 to push the boundaries of "authentic" performance practice closer to the present. Historical performance practice began in the 1950s as an effort to perform music of the pre-Baroque era closer to the way it was originally heard. Gardiner expanded his activities in the movement by recognizing that instruments from the Romantic era were distinctly different from the ones that are standard today. What's more, he has said his aim is nothing more than textual purity through consultation with the composers' manuscripts — in this case, Beethoven.

In some quarters, a divide opened up between the traditionalists and the period-instrument school. The latter's members were somewhat condescendingly 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 recreate what concerts actually sounded like 200 years ago, and period-instrument practitioners merely reflect modernist assumptions about how all music should sound.

Gardiner may not have been the first to record Beethoven's symphonies on original instruments, but when his complete set came out in 1994, 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-free sound.

Gradually, the old divisions between modern and authentic styles have increasingly blurred as both camps drew from each other's 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 conductor Riccardo Chailly's recent Beethoven cycle with the (modern) Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra "to hear how the old iconoclasm is becoming the new normal."

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Yes, some audiences will take sides — whether for the massive string sections and beefed-up choruses of the modern orchestra, or the gutsy sound and unsentimental interpretation of the "vegetarians." Which do you prefer? Listen to these two examples on this page — by John Eliot Gardiner and Otto Klemperer — and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

You can hear the archived concert at WQXR's website.

Copyright 2011 WQXR Radio

Brian Wise