Thirty years of breaking the rules was the bold promise in the brochure for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s 30th birthday. But don’t allow the marketing gloss to bounce you into a premature judgement: this Sunday showed that promise to be amply fulfilled, with a concert that showed of the OAE’s maturity as much as it showed its extreme freshness. Thirty years seems to be a golden age, celebrated in the company of Sir Roger Norrington with a programme that might have been purposely created to seduce the French expatriate that I am: a Haydn Paris symphony, the Flute and Harp Concerto that Mozart wrote in his second stay in Paris and a work by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the one work out of line with my patriotic sensibilities being Beethoven’s Symphony no. 2, which closed the concert.

Sir Roger Norrington © Manfred Esser
Sir Roger Norrington
© Manfred Esser

Formulating a concert programme isn’t easy. Whether one chooses to focus on a single theme or the bringing together of different composers, the ever present peril is that juxtaposition can fail to result in linkage. In this respect, the choice of Haydn’s Symphony no. 83, in which the remarkable use of minor keys bridges the gap between the Sturm and Drang of the classical period and the romantic overflow of later years, turned out to be a judicious one. But the first thing that hits the listener is the homogeneity of the orchestra, whether in timbre – helped by the craftmanship of the period instruments, notably the horn sound which blends marvellously into the orchestral texture – or in dynamic impulse. The orchestra dives into arresting pianissimi without ever losing tension. The musicians are able to to conjure a rough, astringent tone from their instruments when the conductor requests it. Did I say “requests?” For sure, but I’m at a loss to explain how it’s done. Seated on a chair and conducting without a score, Norrington displays an astonishing economy of method. His hand, palm upwards, opens delicately to allow the tone of the oboe to open out: no sudden movements, everything is in the curve, in the flex. A gentle wave of the hand, of the sort made by a doddery old man recalling a childhood story, is all it takes to unleash the orchestra with astounding vehemence.

When it plays Mozart, the orchestra seems to have hit its sweet spot: from the first notes of the Flute and Harp Concerto, a full, silken tone captivates the audience. But was the whole audience able to appreciate the refined dialogue between the soloists? Even seated near the front, I was struggling to follow the harp, whose projection is better suited to the more intimate space of a salon. Frances Kelly, not wishing to exclude the listeners in the far reaches of the hall, had little choice but to hit her instrument hard, and if you flay the strings, the risk is that the sound will be dry and that some virtuosity will be lost. The much-awaited Andantino allowed the two soloists to gain in confidence. Lisa Beznosiuk projected her notes with luminosity all the way until the end of the tutti, in which two bars of an unexpected key change destroy all certainty and hollow out a space into which every listener can fall into deep introspection. The ritornello returns, its consoling harmonies instantly cradling troubled spirits. The reeds accompany the flute, viola pizzicati accompany the harp, the phrases fade away like an audible twilight dimming between the musicians until the listener’s gaze, which has been solidly fixed on the flautist, is suddenly stunned by the majestic, solemn, unexpected sonority of doubled horns. At a bare twenty years of age, Mozart is already a master of the balance between solo parts and orchestral accompaniment.

This concert gave us the chance to hear a rarity: the overture to l’Amant anonyme by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. An open, joyful sort of music: undoubdtedly less cultured in its treatement of orchestral development than the two masters heard so far, but another piece to let our ears acclimatise to the musical idiom of the 18th century. And then, we have the shock of Beethoven, whose second symphony, composed just two years before the Eroica, already overflows with phenomenal energy. The trills whirl in pirouettes, the notes are thrown at us by an orchestra suffering from a severe case of tachycardia. But far from any heaviness that might result from the repeats or from a violent interpretation, the first chords of the orchestra show it projecting the music’s energy forwards, carrying the musicians away in a dynamic vortex in constant flux. Also carrying the audience, until the truly terrifying development at the symphony’s end.

At 80 years of age, Norrington takes his leave with a mischievous, child-like smile. In truth, age matters little in the face of a continuing desire to renew and deepen one’s understanding of great classics. Let’s wish a lengthy lifespan to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, whose vitality was displayed to the full by this concert.

 

Translated from French by David Karlin