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John Eliot Gardiner

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Period-instrument Beethoven performance has certainly come a long way. The out-of-tune scraping and wheezing of early authenticist bands has given way to the likes of John Eliot Gardiner’s Orchestre Révolution naire et Romantique, whose marriage of richness and razor-sharp detail suggests the Vienna Philharmonic after liposuction. But as with Roger Norrington’s trend-setting CDs of these works, Gardiner’s adherence to Beethoven’s controversially fast metronome markings brings as many losses as gains. For all their breathtaking momentum and architectural clarity—not to mention playing of much suppleness and nuance—Gardiner’s performances have a certain relentlessness about them. The symphonies’ kaleidoscopic emotions become straitjacketed by the conductor’s didacticism regarding tempo, less a matter of rapid pulse than of an inflexibility within the beat. If Norrington is equally hooked on speed, his sheer brashness and risk-taking in terms of balance and dynamics often disguise his fanatical devotion to the metronome.