Mozart’s Final Flourish: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Royal Festival Hall review ***

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Ivan Fischer (conductor)

Royal Festival Hall, 7th February 2020

Mozart Symphonies Nos 39, 40 and 41

The OAE, like so many of its orchestral peers, is doing a remarkable job in bringing music to us in this troubling times. All with a solidly educational bent, befitting an ensemble which has followed its own path, keen to bring historically informed performance and repertoire, (and now much more), to as broad an audience as possible since it was founded in 1986. Take a look. And while you are at it see what the LSO, Berlin Phil, LPO, London Sinfonietta, Aurora Orchestra, Wigmore Hall and others are up to. Loads of archive, and even, socially distanced, recent, performances. Let me know what else you have found.

Oh and don’t get me started all on the opportunities to buff up on opera. Most of it isn’t for me but if you are keen on your Verdi, Puccini or Wagner, you are spoilt for choice. OperaVision, Marquee TV, the streams from the Met, the Royal Opera House, Vienna State Opera, as well as the Dutch National Opera, Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, La Monnaie, Bayerische StaatsOper, Deutsche Oper Berlin and our own Garsington Opera. They may be more. So far my lockdown viewing has only extended as far as the Aldeburgh Peter Grimes on the Beach, the Glyndeboure Fairy Queen and the ROH Gloriana. And best of all the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra semi-staged trilogy under Sir John Eliot Gardiner from La Fenice. Spell binding.

Anyway from a purely music perspective then it’s hard to beat the Concertgebouw archive,, whether the Orchestra itself or the venue website. I am currently thoroughly enjoying the Beethoven symphony cycle with the venerable ensemble under the baton of guest conductor Ivan Fischer. Rich interpretations and even digitally mediated the vibrant sound of orchestra and venue is palpable.

Ivan Fischer also acts as one of the Principal Artist conductors for the OAE, (when he isn’t working with the ensemble he founded back in 1983, the Budapest Festival Orchestra). And here was a programme of the last three great Mozart symphonies played in one grand sweep, though with an invitation from the urbane Mr Fischer between movements, which the audience was happy to accept. There was an interval half way through No 40 but the idea, not altogether successful, was to highlight the links between symphonies and movements. Ivan Fischer picked up the notion of seeing and hearing the three symphonies as a whole came from his mentor, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, so who am I to argue. All the interruptions however seemed to me to dispel rather than support the theory.

They were all written in quick succession in the summer of 1788, without a commission, at a time when, allegedly, Mozart was even more brassic than usual. The level of invention, even by Wolfgang’s high standards, is astounding, instrumentation pushed to its limits, and structurally they are all similarly orthodox, only hinting at the risks that LvB was to take less than a couple of decades later. The differences however are still profound. No 39 is more understated, often deceptively simple, but very satisfying, No 40, along with No 25 the only one of WAM’s symphonies in a minor key, dials up the Haydn-esque Sturm und Drang emotion, with No 41, Jupiter, in more heroic vein, straining at the leash of the possible whilst still, in the still gob-smacking finale, (however many times you hear it), echoing the contrapuntal wizardry of the past especially JSB.

The OAE and Mr Fischer created a perfectly agreeable interpretation of the works without them ever seeming to catch fire and there were a few issues with balance and dynamics, (the QEH suits this orchestra better than the RFH), with the woodwind seeming to recede. Having said that I recall this orchestra playing this repertoire in this space a few years ago under another guest conductor, Sir Simon Rattle. I don’t always get on with his gigs, but this one was a triumph.

Pergolesi and Vivaldi: OAE at the Queen Elizabeth Hall review ****

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Katherine Watson (soprano), Rowan Pierce (soprano), Zoe Brookshaw (soprano), Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor), Katharina Spreckelsen (oboe), Choir of the Age of Enlightenment 

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 11th November 2019

  • Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) – Stabat Mater
  • Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni (1671-1751) – Oboe Concerto in D minor, Op.9 No.2
  • Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) – Gloria RV 589

Last year a Pergolesi Stabat Mater with BUD from the AAM. This year the OAE take with MSBD and Katherine Watson (braving a cold) and Iestyn Davies in the soloist chairs. I’ve already banged on about Pergolesi before. This is his most famous work. Written just before his early death from TB. More than a hint of the comic opera about its style, which are, largely, his other, authenticated contributions to Baroque musical history, (I have a recording of some of his instrumental offerings). Though certainly not its serious religious subject, a C13 poem depicting Mary’s vigil at the foot of the Cross. Took the European musical world by storm and, on and off, has been a favourite ever since. Immediate, direct and very effective, it is impossible not to be carried along by the lean, melodic strings offset with deliberately nostalgic stile antico effects, (from the time before Monteverdi revolutionised Western music). These include prolonged cadences and delayed resolutions. Feel the pain. Lovely but a couple of times a year is enough for me.

Albinoni was a prolific composer, around 80 operas, 40 chamber cantatas, 60 concertos and 80 sonatas, and was, in his day, as popular as Corelli and Vivaldi. Though not quite as good IMHO. Then again he only really considered himself a violinist and, being a rich toff, didn’t have to work. SO we should applaud his industry. And, in the oboe concertos, he did come up with some of the finest music ever written for the instrument. His Op 9 set contains 4 for solo oboe and 4 for two oboes and this one, No 2 is considered the best of them. It kicks off with an elegant medium paced Allegro, follows with a sublime and generous slow movement, with an aching, bel canto solo line against a rocking string ripieno, (which MSBD was much taken with), and a bouncy, scurrying finale, which again gives the soloist plenty of opportunity to show off. And, when it comes to Baroque oboe, very few can match the OAE’s Katharina Spreckelsen.

Last live listen to Gloria was with MS and MSC at the Cadogan Hall with the ECO, so it has become something of a family affair, (even the SO and BD have grinned, and, to be fair, more than bore it, in the past. Famously AV wrote the Gloria for a full SATB choir. despite their being, at least officially, no blokes in the Ospedale della Pieta, bar carrot top himself. Which means they were drafted in, or perhaps, in the array of talents in the convent, there were females basses or at least voices low enough to take the parts, maybe with the whole pitched an octave higher. The contemporary audience would never have known, the young women being concealed behind a grills at the balconies where they performed. We had the OAE’s dedicated chamber choir, thankfully in full view, a scratch outfit of professionals perfectly matched to the OAE’s beefy sound. This I can listen to more than a couple of times a year.

Bach Orchestral Suites: OAE at Queen Elizabeth Hall review ****

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Margaret Faultless (director/violin), Lisa Beznosiuk (flute)

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 14th May 2019

Okey dokey pig in a pokey. There has been a grumpy tone in the last few posts that the workshy Tourist, courtesy of an imagined pep talk from Pauline, is resolved to shake off. So let’s park up the portable pulpit and climb back aboard the cheery charabanc of cultural criticism.

Mind you what can I tell you about the Four Orchestral Suites. I’ve come a fair way on my journey with Bach, who is the composer whose music I have begun to appreciate more than any other in recent years, (only a fascination with Ligeti has come close), but I still have a long way to go. If I am honest I will leave others to lead me through the vocal music and I doubt I will ever truly enjoy the sound of an organ of which he wrote profusely. There’s also still a lot of work to be done outside the obvious starting pieces in the works for keyboard but I reckon I have finally got my head around the chamber music and orchestral works. By which I mean I roughly know in what format and for what instruments he wrote. Not much I know but at least now I can properly start listening.

Any newbie to Bach is going to come across the Four Orchestral Suites pretty early on. And recognise plenty of the tunes. And what tunes. They are based on dance forms. Which makes then easy on the ear. But this being Bach there is so much more. The old boy termed them Ouvertures, referring to the form which preceded the dance movements in each of the suites. The French overture was all the rage in the Germany of Bach’s day. It was made. up of a stately majestic opening section in relatively slow dotted-note rhythm in duple meter, followed by a fast fugal section, then concluded with a short recapitulation of the opening music. Even if you know nothing about the Baroque, French, German, Italian or otherwise, but you have you seen any film which has toffs in preposterously big wigs behaving badly you will recognise the grooves. (Though not The Favourite. Like everything else about that film every piece on the soundtrack was chosen by someone who knows their stuff).

JS Bach wasn’t as prolific as some when it came to the suite, Telemann for example. But that would be because he was a glum pious bugger and was tied down by the religious day job. Or was it? The general consensus now is that he didn’t originally conceive these four works as a set and that they came together not when he worked in Cothen, (though he had the opportunity here), but after he landed his dream job, in 1723, as Music Director in Leipzig and Cantor at St Thomas’s School. This is when he was at his busiest but also when he sought to develop his music outside the confines of the church. From 1729 JSB became the director of the concert society, the Collegium Musicum Leipzig, which every Friday met at the same coffeehouse for a jam session. And it was for this group that he wrote the Orchestral Suites, albeit recycling some of his favourite riffs from previous work.

The Collegium though was all about exploring contemporary musical trends, which explains the form of the suites, but it was a serious, scholarly outfit, which is why JSB was able to serve up something much more than a clever pastiche of the genre. Which is why their immediate attractions, this is Bach at his most “galant”, then give way to something deeper and more satisfying.

The OAE, led on this evening, as is its raison d’être, by one of its own, co-leader Margaret Faultless, (whose inspirational contribution to HIP sort of matches her surname), kicked off with No 3 which probably dates from 1731. Here we get three oboes, a couple of trumpets and drums alongside strings and continuo, which explains the march-y, fanfare-y feel of the ouverture, which precedes that Air (on a G string). Now it always takes 10 minutes or so for my brain and ears to catch up with period ensembles and this was no different so it was only after the air that I was in the swing. As it happens the OAE’s violist Max Mandel stepped out after the Suite to ask if we liked the tempo that they had taken it at. I was one of the tiny minority who wanted it faster. Thus proving that, for me, and even in the slow movements, it can never be too fast or too loud in the Baroque and Classical. Well maybe not blast-beat chaotic but you get the drift.

Anyway I was warmed up by the two hop-along Gavottes, and the following rousing Bourree and swinging Gigue where the trumpets link back to the ouverture. By contrast Suite No 1 which followed is scored for two oboes and a bassoon, so with no trumpets and drums is a much less public and triumphant affair. The woodwind double the strings in the first theme but then operate as a solo trio weaving between the strings and continuo in the manner of a Handelian concerto grosso. The Courante which follows, in 3/2 metre, starts off bouncily enough but then turns into one of those shifting, swirling things of wonder, but it’s gone in a flash. The Gavotte, Menuet, Bourree and Passepied which follow are arranged in pairs with the second a variation on the first, sometimes just for wind sometimes just for strings, sometimes both, as in the second Gavotte where the strings imitate trumpet fanfares. This is JSB at his genius best. Something so simple becomes, er cliche alert, just sublime. The unrepeated dance, a Forlance, some sort of Slavic jig, is another little, pastoral gem.

No 2 came much later maybe 1739, (the numbers are not chronological), in fact it was probably JSB’s last orchestral work. It certainly sounds sterner, in the opening dotted march and then in the ensuing fugue, and when they come together we are in JSB’s world of pure musical invention where the old boy just never missteps in solving his mathematical and aesthetic puzzle. The dances include a Rondeau, another pair of Bourees, a Polonaise and finally a Menuet and Badinerie ,(which you will recognise – yep the Nokia ringtone favourite). These movements are where the OAE’s flautist Lisa Beznosiuk was able to strut her stuff, and strut she certainly did, (here’s the first page of the original flute part above). Yet for me the sweet, sweet Sarabande might just be the best movement of the suite. This is JSB in love. If you think the old boy’s music is too “intellectual”, which is b*llocks anyway, then listen to this and think again.

No 4, like Nos 1 and 2, similarly started off sans trumpets but, so uplifting is its opening Ouverture, that he quickly added 3 of them as well as drums. He also pinched the tune for his Christmas cantata in 1725. It is obviously Bach and obviously Baroque but there are times in this if I close my eyes when I could be listening to Mozart or early Beethoven. The dance movements, again with paired Bourees and Menuets sandwiching a Gavotte, highlight winds, trumpets and strings alternately, before a final Rejouissance which lives up to its name.

The OAE, for the most part standing, was on top form. The continuo of Stephen Devine (harpsichord), Luise Buchberger (cello) and Cecelia Bruggemeyer (bass) pushed and pulled throughout. I’d set these three along side my favourite ever rhythm sections any day of the week. * I would also call out the oboes of Katherine Spreckelsen and Alexandra Bellamy. A good night. An opinion shared by the entire MSBD sibling crowd whom it was my pleasure to accompany.

  • Since you are asking. Tony Thompson/Bernard Edwards, Benny Benjamin/James Jamerson, Al Jackson Jr/Donald Dunn, Paul Chambers/Jimmy Cobb, Sly & Robbie, Ashton and Carlton Barrett, Dennis Davies/George Murray, Brown Mark/Bobby Z, Les Pattinson/Pete de Freitas, Steve and Paul Hanley, Dave Allen/Hugo Burnham, Peter Hook/Stephen Morris, Tina Weymouth/Chris Frantz, Graham Lewis/Robert Gotobed, Bill Ward/Geezer Butler, John Paul Jones/John Bonham, Neil Peart/Geddy Lee.

Nicola Benedetti and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Royal Festival Hall

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The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Marin Alsop, Nicola Benedetti

Royal Festival Hall, 4th February 2018

  • Beethoven Symphony No 4 in B flat
  • Beethoven – Violin Concerto in D major

“Stardom” in the classical music world is a curious thing. To get there ideally you need to be a child prodigy. Then take a prize at your chosen music school. Get taken under the wing of a teacher and mentor, (more than one ideally), who are maestros from prior generations. Win a competition prize, or finish as a creditable runner-up, and secure a few prestigious gigs. A recording of a Romantic staple which tests the previous best recommendations. Set yourself up with your own festival in the middle of nowhere. Teach the kids and the underprivileged and travel. A lot. And, if you are a woman expect a load of airbrushed photos of you exuding grace, or if a bloke, brooding, ideally with a shock of unkempt hair. Make the cut, and there aren’t that many places available, and you are set up, literally, for life.

Obviously though you need talent and a level of dedication far beyond other jobs/professions/vocations. And even if you get to the top of the tree you are still only going to be appreciated by a minority of the population. Ah, but the pleasure you bring them cannot be measured.

Just occasionally though classical musicians break out into the wider consciousness by virtue of their genius, position and/or symbolism. In this concert I would contend we had two such musicians.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Marin Alsop’s rise to the top of the conducting profession. Recently appointed as Artistic Director for the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, alongside her leadership of the Baltimore and Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestras, she is probably best known to the general public from her two recent stints at the Last Night of the Proms. Here at the South Bank, where she is an Artist in Residence, she was given the award from the Association of British Orchestras, the trade body if you will. Let us hope she continues to inspire women to follow her. (I am looking forward to hearing Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO perform the Rite of Spring and Daphnis and Chole later in the year at the Barbican for example). There is a long way to go. Vienna’s other orchestra, the Philharmonic, didn’t permit women until 20 years ago (though they had a secret woman harpist, bloody hypocrites) and the unacceptable behaviour of certain male conductors is now being revealed. Ms Alsop is proving a powerful and eloquent champion and should be roundly supported for her work and her stance.

Nicola Benedetti has also proved capable of transcending the usual confines of classical music. Her recordings to date have not fought shy of delivering the popular “compilations” that shifts units. There was a packed house for this concert, and I would venture the majority were here just to see Ms Benedetti. This country is blessed with a rich classical music culture, (though maybe not quite as rich as Central and Eastern Europe), and there are plenty of talented musicians and marvellous composers. But world class soloists are a little thinner on the ground. So it is no wonder that Ms Benedetti, who is still just 30 years old, is so treasured, what with her MBE and Queen’s Medal for Music. Note I am unashamedly claiming her for Britain: she is unequivocally proud to be Scottish.

This was the first time I had heard her play. In a piece I now know well and, obviously, adore. With a band which comprises musicians who are at the top of their period music game. On a period fiddle whose sound I understand. This was Ms Benedetti’s first time with the OAE. (She will be joining the Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican at the end of May in a programme of Vivaldi and Telemann. BUD and KCK have been signed up). Though not the first time she has played with gut strings. Ballsy then to take on Beethoven, the Daddy of the modern violin concerto, in a period performance.

So I couldn’t tell you what live sound she makes on steel strings, but, on the basis of this, it is probably something special. Here was a sweet, earthy and perfect tone but with a huge dynamic range. Very impressive. Especially in the slow movement Larghetto. And a real treat in the cadenza she has written specially in conjunction with Petr Limonov, what with its jamming with the timpani manned by Adrian Bending, (who also gets his big cameo in the opening and second movements of the Fourth Symphony remember), and its harmonic fantasy culminating in some showy pizzicato. Obviously you wouldn’t turn your back on an old-fashioned, knock ’em out between the eyes rendition, (my favoured recording is the Perlman/Barenboim/BPO which really pumps it up in the last movement), but this was still very satisfying. This is, after all, Beethoven’s least gruff, un-buttoned up orchestral masterpiece, set in its Happy D home key.

I wasn’t quite so persuaded by Marin Alsop’s treatment of the Fourth Symphony. Now I know it is a funny creature, murky and tentative in places, with those stop/starts, and it gets a bad rap compared to the Third and Fifth. But there is still lots to enjoy and explore. The OAE’s brass was in fine fettle but the woodwind was occasionally not quite what I expected and the strings felt a little too polite in the adagio vivace of the first movement, after that mysterious opening, and in the final allegro, which needs that massive contrast into the stalls. Tempi were a little on the slow side for me but then again I get off on John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire Et Romantique’s Beethoven cycle, especially in this symphony. Here Ms Alsop, as in the Violin Concerto, was most convincing in the slower movement.