Summoning Beethoven’s ‘imaginary orchestra’

John Eliot Gardiner, the British conductor whose historically informed English Baroque Soloists and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique have opened several generations of ears to music as it’s believed to have been heard in 18th and 19th centuries, greets the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth by presenting the nine symphonies through Feb. 24 at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

In a talk with The New York Times’ Zachary Woolfe, Gardiner recalls his early exposure to the “Wagnerian,” romantic-style Beethoven interpretations of Wilhelm Furtwängler, discovery of the leaner, more dynamic Beethoven of Arturo Toscanini, and ultimate realization that as the composer’s hearing deteriorated, he was writing for an “imaginary orchestra,” audible only in his imagination.

If you’ve ever wondered why Gardiner gave his 19th-century style orchestra a French name, he notes that the first competent performances of the Beethoven symphonies were given after the composer’s death not Vienna, but by the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire in Paris. “For the first time they were rehearsed properly, with clear phrasing, articulations and unified bowings for the string players,” the conductor says. “Our model, if we had a model at all, was this Paris orchestra.”