By Michael Roddy
LONDON, Feb 21 (Reuters) - When Sir John Eliot Gardiner almost two decades ago brought out a major recording of the Beethoven symphonies played on old-fashioned instruments, some reviewers carped about fast tempos, harsh or even rude sounds and a general uncouthness.
Nowadays, and after he has issued what some number crunchers say is 250 CDs, "historically informed performance", with the oh-so-clever acronym HIP, is mainstream in many parts of the world with the notable exception, Gardiner said, of America.
"There are some magnificent American symphony orchestras, no doubt about it, but there is a good deal of resistance to even giving the time of day to the sort of endeavours that some of us have been trying to do for the last 40 years," Gardiner, who will turn 70 in April, told Reuters in an interview at his pied-a-terre in a determinedly multi-ethnic area of south London.
He attributes this resistance to American conservatism, and also to the notion that civic pride, for many U.S. cities, is wrapped up in the local symphony orchestra - so hands off.
But when Gardiner overcomes the U.S. visa system, and convinces consular officers his job as a conductor does not involve collecting tickets, he and two of his travelling bands, the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, garner reviews worthy of a fanzine.
In a New York performance of the most famous Fifth in all of music, Gardiner "wrought Beethoven fresh and strange, with gutsy, brash and rasping instrumental voices united in triumph", a reviewer wrote in the New York Times in 2011.
A year later the same paper said of a Gardiner Beethoven Ninth that it had featured "the piercing insistence of a piccolo that seems to have been requisitioned from Napoleon's army".
"If you're a radical, which I hope I am, and a bit of a pioneer, you have to expect that you're going to be pooh-poohed or viewed with great suspicion," Gardiner said in an interview in the living-cum-music room of his house, which has the demeanour of a converted religious building.
"And yet yesterday's radicality becomes today's orthodoxy."
It has been a long row to hoe for this son of a Dorset, southwest England, farmer who was something of a radical himself. He left his son land that he now farms as what he insists firmly, if politely, is not a hobby but a commercial enterprise, even if losses have featured over profits recently.
"I'm not a gentleman farmer, not a bit, sometimes absentee but not really. Very much hands on," he said. "It's a passion for me and it's a wonderful antidote for the music profession."
That last bit could almost be used to describe Gardiner, who if nothing else, has been an antidote to the performance tradition for Western classical music that took hold towards the end of the 19th century and has been challenged by people like Gardiner, who say it is not in music's best interests.
"BORN OF FRUSTRATION"
He said HIP has caught on, particularly in Britain and in France, because of frustration with what orchestras were doing.
"It's born of frustration of hearing this old music sound so foreign, so strange, so 'oldie' when it's played on modern instruments. That's the paradox. Use the right tools, use the right mindset, re-educate your ears and you find you're open to a brilliant, dazzling new world of sounds."
Modern woodwinds and brass have more effective keys and valves while string instruments use metal rather than gut strings to produce a louder, shinier sound. Playing Beethoven symphonies on instruments from his era, at the turn of the 18th century, is harder, but it is what makes them work, Gardiner said.
"What's great about the instruments of Beethoven's period is that you've still got this sense of struggle with the technology and that's part of the whole rhetorical force of the music."
Kicking off his birthday month, on Easter Monday (April 1)Gardiner will go further back in the repertoire - to Johann Sebastian Bach - for nine hours of music interspersed with lectures which he assures will not be boring, even for a second (Royal Albert Hall, www.bachmarathon.com).
"This is going to be a fantastic variety of textures, of music of different moods. Bach is just so all encompassing, he has so many different sides to him," Gardiner said.
Gardiner treasures Bach for his use of dance rhythms and figures, because he seems to have been a born mathematician whose music displays perfect proportionality, and for the sense of the divine that infuses his works.
But Gardiner seems most to cherish Bach for his humanity, and how that is present in just about everything he wrote.
"This is somebody who's a flawed human being, who had terrible grief, who lost both his parents by the time he was 10 and lost 10 of his 23 children and his first wife.
"He manages to convey the humanity of our existence in a very touching and very direct and personal way so that the music, even when it's super intellectual and super spiritual, never loses its roots in the soil and in dance and also in our human nature.
"He manages to encapsulate, to embrace our humanity in all its imperfections in his music." (Reporting by Michael Roddy, editing by Paul Casciato)