JOHN ELIOT GARDINER (b 1943 )
A descendant of the composer Balfour Gardiner, John Eliot Gardiner was just six years old when he first heard the music of Monteverdi, with which he was later to be closely associated, at the Dartington Summer School of Music directed by Nadia Boulanger. He studied Arabic and history at King’s College, Cambridge, where he founded the Monteverdi Choir in 1964 after conducting the Oxford and Cambridge Singers on a tour of the Middle East; following his graduation from Cambridge he studied music with Thurston Dart at King’s College, London, and with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, as well as conducting with George Hurst. Gardiner made his London conducting debut with the Monteverdi Choir at the Wigmore Hall in 1966, and in the following year marked the four hundredth anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth with a performance in Ely Cathedral of that composer’s Vespers of 1610 in an edition prepared by himself. This was repeated with great success at the Promenade Concerts in 1968, the year in which he founded the Monteverdi Orchestra to perform with the Choir. His operatic debut came the following year, conducting The Magic Flute for English National Opera, and in 1973 Gardiner appeared for the first time with the Royal Opera Company at Covent Garden directing Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride.
During the 1970s most of Gardiner’s performances and recordings were of Baroque music, and he enjoyed a close relationship with the Erato record company. Between 1973 and 1975 he both presented in performance and recorded new editions of three operas by Rameau: Dardanus, Les fêtes d’Hébé, and Les Boréades. As he moved more in the direction of period performance, in 1977 he founded the English Baroque Soloists, playing on period instruments, to succeed the Monteverdi Orchestra. This ensemble made its debut performing Handel’s Acis and Galatea at the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music.
In the following decade Gardiner developed his international career as a conductor. Between 1980 and 1983 he was chief conductor of the CBC Vancouver Orchestra, and from 1981 to 1990 artistic director of the Göttingen Handel Festival. As chief conductor at the Lyons Opera between 1983 and 1988 he fully established his operatic credentials, conducting for instance a scintillating production and recording of Chabrier’s operetta L’Étoile. A further breakthrough came in 1990 when he led the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists in their debut at the Salzburg Festival, where he has since been a frequent guest. Reflecting his questing nature, in the same year he formed another new period instrument orchestra, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, this time to play Classical and Romantic music, and with this group Gardiner has performed and recorded key works of the nineteenth-century repertoire, such as the Beethoven and Schumann symphonies. From 1991 until 1994 he was chief conductor of the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg. Here he laid his clear imprint upon the orchestra’s repertoire, recording with it music by Brahms, Dvořák, Mahler, Zemlinsky, Rachmaninov, Janáček, Kurt Weill and Benjamin Britten for Deutsche Grammophon.
This work supported Gardiner’s growing parallel career as an international guest conductor, appearing with major ensembles such as the Boston, Cleveland, Philharmonia, and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestras. He conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time in 1994, in a recording of Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe for Deutsche Grammophon, and in 1999 led a new production of the same piece at the Vienna State Opera, where it had not previously been performed. An unusual work pattern, whereby a single piece is studied and performed intensively during a single year, produced fine results in 1996 with Beethoven’s opera Leonore, the first draft of Fidelio, and in 1998 with Verdi’s Falstaff. Between these productions, in 1997 Gardiner made his Glyndebourne Festival Opera debut, conducting Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, and appeared for the first time with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
Following the success of his series of staged, semi-staged and recorded performances of Mozart’s mature operas in Europe, Gardiner decided to use a similar collaboration of choir and artists to mark the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the death of J. S. Bach. During a single year between December 1999 and December 2000 he, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists took on the demanding project of performing, recording, and broadcasting Bach’s sacred cantatas in churches throughout Europe. This, one of the largest and most complex Baroque music ventures ever undertaken, once more reflected the unorthodox character of this gifted musician. The project also led to a parting of the ways with Deutsche Grammophon and the establishment of Gardiner’s own record label, Soli Deo Gloria. Gardiner has received many honours: in 1988 he was nominated Officier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and in 1997, Commandeur. He was made a CBE in the 1990 New Year’s Honours List, and was awarded a knighthood for his services to music in the 1998 Queen’s Birthday Honours List.
Gardiner has had at times a stormy relationship with musicians, and his strong individual vision occasionally results in performances that can seem hard-driven and inflexible. Yet at his peak he is capable of truly memorable music-making, especially with projects with which he has closely identified, such as the rediscovery of operas by Rameau and of Berlioz’s Messe solennelle. He has shown himself to be an effective master of the relationship between concert-giving and recording, which is partly reflected in his large discography, many elements of which have grown out of specific projects. A further development of this relationship has been the creation of Soli Deo Gloria, or SDG, the record label initially devoted to the preservation of the performances of the Bach pilgrimage of 1999–2000. Gardiner has effectively made the transition from niche to general conductor, while at the same time maintaining his specialist profile, notably in period performance. His discography reflects these two strands. One of the largest for a contemporary conductor, it extends from the high French Baroque to the late-Romantic world of Zemlinsky, evidence of Gardiner’s own range and unusual individuality as a musician.