John Eliot Gardiner/Monteverdi Orchestra, Cadogan Hall, review: 'mysterious and miraculous'

Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Credit: Chris Christodoulou

Fury, terror, fear of the hereafter: those are the feelings that course through the two late, great pieces of Mozart performed at this concert, the Requiem and the 40th Symphony. They’re clothed in such heavenly music that we can sometimes forget that, especially if the performers soften Mozart’s harsh outlines.

That is not Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s way. He has been immersing himself in Bach’s sacred music for the past decade, and here Mozart’s music felt infused with the German’s total high-seriousness, that feeling of being faced with First and Last Things. Sir John was a picture of seriousness himself; there wasn’t a glimmer of a smile when he came onto the podium. Then he turned and, with a brusque movement, launched the anxious first bars of Mozart’s 40th Symphony, before the applause had died away.

Urgency was the key-note of the performance, and that meant not just fast tempos, but a light airy way of playing, with spaces between phrases. The danger with that approach is that we end up with “Mozart-lite”, but that never happened here. The music felt incredibly weighty, without sounding heavy.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner at the Cite de la Musique, Paris, 2010 Credit: Francois Guillot

That’s a mysterious and miraculous effect. It owed much to the sound of Eliot Gardiner’s “period” orchestra, which by its nature can never gel into the luxurious blend we’re used to from conventional symphony orchestras.

One became aware of a disturbingly dissonant bassoon line here, an expressive viola line there, because the harsh, tangy sound of the instruments ensured we noticed them.

In the Requiem, the expressive palette darkened and deepened. The fury and terror were still there, and not only in the places you’d expect them, like the Dies Irae. The rising sequence in the Lacrimosa, often rendered with stately magnificence, here had a hushed astonished quality, as if the choir were witnessing that day “when the guilty arise from the dust.”

Set against that were moments when Eliot Gardiner relaxed his grip, and allowed a consoling note to shine through. He was helped in that by tenor Gareth Treseder, whose tender tone in the Tuba Mirum made a beautiful foil to the gravely serious bass of David Shipley. As the piece moved towards its close, the piece seemed to turn on its axis. Urgent fleetness was left behind, as Gardiner’s tempos became meditative and slow.

By the end, it felt as if we’d plumbed every depth these wonderful works have to offer.