In the early stages of his career Carlos Kleiber was ignored by those who should have known better. Just a few years ago Kirill Petrenko was deemed insufficiently important to appear at the Proms. Maverick conductors always run the risk of being sidelined or overlooked. But there’s no overlooking Teodor Currentzis. To begin with, his physical appearance is arresting: tall and willowy, wearing drainpipe black jeans and a bright red arm-bracelet, he is as far removed as you can get from the technician who merely beats time. What Currentzis does with his hand-picked players from Perm, his musicAeterna ensemble, is to animate. In his body language he reminded me at times of a mariner at work: wheeling in ropes, adjusting the rigging, stretching the sailcloth against the wind, signalling to the crow’s nest and heaving dramatically on the tiller. His gestures are sometimes extraordinary, but also extraordinarily effective. Imagine your local bartender with two cocktail-shakers in his hands, a pianist’s fingers placing a perfect series of trills or a prize fighter punching the air after victory, and you have some idea of what Currentzis does in front of his orchestra. Nor does he impose himself on his players in every bar: for half a minute in the finale of Beethoven’s seventh he simply stopped conducting and gave his musicians absolute freedom to take charge of the proceedings. In the coda that ends the A major work, his massed group of upper strings played as if maniacally possessed, each rapid sweep of the individual bows brilliantly coordinated. It takes hours and hours of painstaking rehearsal to secure that kind of unanimity, and when it comes the effect is spellbinding and unforgettable.

Teodor Currentzis © Anton Zavyalov
Teodor Currentzis
© Anton Zavyalov

Conductors can make their mark by establishing a reputation in neglected repertory, through affinity with a particular composer or – much more challenging, of course – by creating new insights in the core repertory. Currentzis has not shied away from the big names and the big pieces. In this concert given as part of a European tour, the focus was entirely on Mozart and Beethoven. As one might have expected, there was a great deal of the unorthodox and unconventional, and instances of stylistic inconsistency which bordered on the perverse.

In this concert the work for solo instrument rather unusually preceded the overture. Alexander Melnikov played K453, the most graceful of Mozart’s middle-period piano concertos. He chose to play it on a Hammerklavier, one of the early German pianos. Yet although Currentzis had scaled down his strings to just 23 players, there was a serious imbalance between the sounds being produced. If you closed your eyes during the cadenzas in the first two movements you could imagine yourself in the ballroom of a fairy-tale Baroque castle, lit by real chandeliers, with periwigged flunkeys in attendance. But this was dangerously close to music-box Mozart, the gentle tinkling of sounds not far removed from those of a harpsichord. The moment single wind instruments entered, it was as though Melnikov was playing in a quite different room of the same building. There were moments of songfulness in the finale – where Mozart’s pet starling apparently learned to whistle the first five bars – and elements of rococo glitter, but the operatically-inspired coda failed to make a full impact. For all the attempts at authenticity, the absence of antiphonal violins (as was the case throughout) was a strange lapse. After a platform rearrangement Melnikov and his Hammerklavier then joined Currentzis and a larger group of players (who all stood with the exception of the cellos and timpani) for a fleet-footed Figaro overture.

For Beethoven’s Seventh the timpanist had come armed with a dozen different sticks, all of which were used. It was the fabulous strings and timpani that dominated the textures, with quite the most violently percussive playing I have ever heard in the Trio section of the third movement. Accorded all the repeats the performance ran to well over forty minutes. None of the tempi bordered on the extreme, with the possible exception of the much slower Trio in which Currentzis indulged in some questionable swooning in the string and woodwind lines. Throughout he laid bare much inner detail in the string writing, each strand clearly programmed to reinforce the terpsichorean character of the entire work. However, the two natural horns and a pair of valveless trumpets were rarely in the picture. Those moments of release which come from additional brass colouring in climaxes were missing and denied the symphony its ultimate exultation.

My goodness though, this yeast from the east can certainly make the dough rise and give the musical gluten an astonishing tensile strength. As with all rising agents, however, getting the dosage right is what counts.