Classical music has its fair share of bad boys, from the rebellious and hell-raising Nigel Kennedy to the rock-star stylisations of organist Cameron Carpenter. Many of our favourite composers were promiscuous rabble-rousers with a weakness for the bottle. Jean Sibelius was often dragged from Helsinki watering holes by his long-suffering wife to keep his conducting engagements, whilst the pneumonia that killed Henry Purcell came on after being locked out of his house following a night on the town.
Early music, far from being home to the musical equivalent of historical battle re-enactors, has its own musical radicals. Conductors such as Christopher Hogwood and Trevor Pinnock rejuvenated performing practice in the 1970s with gut strings, valveless brass and a crisp and agile sound. The late wind player and educationalist David Munrow’s infectious enthusiasm for the weird and wonderful world of crumhorn consorts and medieval shawms showed that period instruments could be exciting.
Teodor Currentzis is just the latest artist to want to tear up the rulebook and revolutionise classical music. The conductor has made a splash with MusicAeterna, the Russian period-instrument orchestra he founded in 2004, and their revisionist recordings of Mozart’s Da Ponte operas. With a hard-edged persona and wild conducting, he is the image of classical cool. But behind the marketing machine is a disciplined ensemble driven by Currentzis’ singular vision, and finely tuned through gruelling recording sessions that often last weeks. Together with their frequent collaborator Patricia Kopatchinskaja, herself a challenging and inventive artist, Currentzis and MusicAeterna made a stop at Berlin’s Konzerthaus as part of their European tour for an explosive performance of music by Beethoven and Mozart.
Though not quite the troubled genius of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, Mozart was certainly a troublemaker and a constant pain in the behind for family, friends and colleagues. The Symphony no. 25 in G minor was composed when he was still a precocious 17-year old, and its Sturm und Drang stylisations, inspired by Haydn, were more likely a teenager’s stroppy tantrums than world-weary angst. For Currentzis and MusicAeterna, the piece was all fire and brimstone. From an opening theme almost spat out with rage, their performance was highly-strung and overflowing with energy.
Patricia Kopatchinskaja moved far beyond the wit and elegance of Mozart’s Fourth Violin Concerto with a restless tone and wild spirit, her solo part dancing over the taut ensemble less like a ballerina, more like a whirling dervish. Both violinist and ensemble stress-tested the elasticity of Mozart’s work with bold modernist cadenzas, Kopatchinskaja’s use of folksy drones and Eastern scales countered by the orchestra using their instruments as percussion instruments.
Beethoven was in many ways the ultimate musical bad boy. A self-declared musical revolutionary, he originally dedicated his Third Symphony to his idol, Napoleon, hell-raiser in chief of the 18th and 19th centuries. He only changed the title to “Eroica” after Napoleon declared himself Emperor in 1804 – an act of egoism beyond the pale for Beethoven. Currentzis and MusicAeterna’s irrepressible energy created moments of extreme clarity, and the instrumental musicianship was always first-class.
Yet the symphony’s slow-burning heroic narrative became simply a black-and-white issue; triumphant fortissimo or faltering pianissimo, tearaway presto or funereal largo. The symphony’s opening was explosive and exhilarating, but if you start with the dial turned up to 10, then the only way to build is to go full Spinal Tap and turn up to 11. The encore, the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro, was played at competitive speeds and hammered home the pitfalls of a revisionist approach.
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