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By John Sidgwick

LONDON, 18 January 2007— For years, I have been trying to fathom a certain mystery with regard to John Eliot Gardiner, ever since I first heard him at a Promenade Concert in London's Royal Albert Hall in 1969. The question is this: how is it that Gardiner is able to lend to any of the music he performs a unique blend of intelligence and sheer excitement. During his early years as a conductor, he was saddled with the label of being an early music specialist. By now, he has completely scotched that one; his numerous appearances at the head of illustrious orchestras worldwide in a repertoire stretching well into the twentieth century have amply demonstrated his ability to go to the heart of any piece he is called upon to perform.

I had a partial reply to my question in that Gardiner, unique I think amongst the world's great musicians, is a genuine countryman. He draws his substance from the earth and his hands-on management of his organic farm in Wiltshire, is far from the gentleman-farmer image. Many is the time that a few hours after conducting in one of London's great concert venues he can be found looking after his herd of Aubrac cattle and his huge flock of sheep, with all the physical effort that this entails.

Although Gardiner's early reputation was fostered by a vast output of splendid recordings, he himself has always looked upon live performance as the essential of music-making. This is masterfully borne out by the complete cycle of Bach Cantatas that he undertook to make during a year-long pilgrimage in the year 2000, taking his players and singers through many European countries and also to the United States. The aim was to perform the works on the Sundays corresponding to those for which Bach himself had written them. The enterprise was an enormous one and it nearly came to grief when the original sponsors, Deutsche Grammophon pulled out. It was thanks to Gardiner's tenacity and to the generous cooperation of his musicians that the pilgrimage proceeded and the recordings were made. They are now appearing on the Monteverdi Productions label, which is marked by the initials SDG (Soli Deo Gloria) used by Bach himself to sign his religious works.

It is thanks to these recordings and to the recent tour of Europe undertaken by Gardiner with his musicians that the full impact of his genius dawned on me and that I found the answer to the question I raised earlier. Firstly, this man lives in a state of perpetual awareness. More than any musician I know, he feels the needs of the moment both with regard to the occasion and to the setting and he adjusts the manner of performance in accordance. But even more importantly—and here we come to the heart of the matter—Gardiner is hyper-sensitive to the pulse of the music, its very life-blood. Even when the composer indicates the tempo at which he feels the piece should be played, this can only be a general guide. Within this guidance, there have to be subtle variations of tempo in tune with the moods through which the listener is taken. How to tackle this is an exquisite matter of taste. You cannot pull the music round any old how: this soon leads to travesty. Gardiner's instinct for pulse is very nearly infallible. As simple as that!


CK Related Archvies: Compendium of Baroque Musical Instruments


John Sidgwick writes about classical music in Britain and France for Culturekiosque.com.  He last wrote on the British violinist Jennifer Pike

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