The Antwerp Symphony Orchestra (ASO, formerly known as the deFilharmonie or the Royal Flemish Philharmonic) is a superb formation, one of the finest in the country. The quality of this ensemble was undeniable in an utterly delightful Mozart and Dvořák matinee concert in Antwerp’s Queen Elisabeth Hall under the ASO’s Conductor Laureate, Dutch maestro Edo de Waart. The presence of Alice Sara Ott as soloist was icing on the cake.

Alice Sara Ott © Jonas Becker
Alice Sara Ott
© Jonas Becker

Mozart’s 13th Piano Concerto was the last in a series of three subscription concertos written in 1782-1783 following his move to Vienna. Lively and simple, meant to please the widest of audiences, Mozart also prepared versions with string quartet accompaniment next to the full orchestral editions, including woodwinds and brass. The 13th in C Major is the most audacious of the three, with a richer orchestration, a frequent use of counterpoint writing and a surprising cadenza in the first movement.

The ASO appeared in a reduced ensemble for the concerto, anchored on just two double-basses, yet the sound that Edo de Waart obtained was anything but slight. The strings were divided with the altos facing the first violins, assuring a solid yet transparent sound. Tempos flowed naturally and the quality of the orchestral balance was immediately apparent in the striking polyphonic passage of the Allegro before the entrance of the soloist.

Alice Sara Ott brought plenty of verve and sparkle to her playing, but above all a beauty of timbre and a natural sense of balancing the composer’s varying moods. The sudden appearance of the short passages in minor keys in the outer movements were ravishing moments in her hands, greyish clouds on an otherwise joyful day, none too serious, but subtly present nonetheless. Ott is often heard as a brilliant soloist in the great, barnstorming 19th-century concertos, yet Mozart’s classical poise was well served too by her innate elegance and effortless virtuosity. She is an eye-catching artist, well-known now for her remarkable stage presence (barefooted, capering nimbly in long, beautiful gowns often reflecting the general mood of the piece) and she clearly knows how to create a rapport with an ensemble. Her frequent eye contact with other musicians and obvious delight at listening to their parts not only resulted in a shared sense of purpose, but also demonstrated her communicative joy at making music.

A magnificent performance of Antonin Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony “From the New World” completed this concert. The reading was slightly overshadowed by an unfortunate event, when a member of the audience became unwell and had to be evacuated by a medic team between the third and fourth movement. At that point maestro de Waart and the orchestra even decided to leave the stage for a few minutes. It’s all part of live music-making and, happily, it eventually looked like the man will be able to attend many more concerts.

Edo de Waart convincingly balanced grandeur and intimacy, energy and lyricism, within the movements as well as in the symphony as a whole. His well-judged tempos and care for textural clarity emphasised the symphony’s cyclic nature as much as the profundity of Dvořák’s inspiration. De Waart’s approach of the first movement was in this respect exemplary. In a wholly natural sweep the gradual build-up towards the climaxes was thrillingly handled. There was a sense of power gaining in impact each time, but it never became aggressive. The ASO, now in full force, sounded absolutely superb. Rich and warm strings, characterful woodwinds and excellent brass made us forget we were on the banks of the Scheldt in Antwerp rather than somewhere in Central Europe.

De Waart took his time with the famous Largo, which was totally justified within his approach and moreover boasted outstanding playing, foremost from the cor anglais in the main theme, but also from the oboe and clarinet in the central part, not to forget the beautiful, hard-working strings contributing in no small measure to the nostalgic mood. There was so much to enjoy you wanted it to last forever. The Scherzo highlighted the wonderful horns section, an asset throughout the symphony, and again while gaining plenty of momentum de Waart kept things under control. Having returned after the short interruption, orchestra and conductor swiftly took up where they left and completed the symphony with a glorious finale, capturing the various moods with great sensibility and precision. As with all great renditions of Dvořák’s final symphonies you leave the hall touched by the nostalgia and even sense of loss that pervades his music, and arguably nowhere more so than in the last movement of the Ninth where all preceding themes and influences are integrated in a staggering orchestral display.

With music-making of such quality it doesn’t matter whether you have heard a work countless times, it still sounds like a new experience. This was a wonderful concert deserving the highest praise.