Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the London Symphony Orchestra visited Antwerp with a splendid programme of German early Romantic music. They captured the exalted homages from Weber and Schumann to the Germany of olden times in vivid and dramatic readings that made a good case – barring some rough edges – for traditional orchestras adopting period-style influences. Eventually it was a stellar performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major by Isabelle Faust that made the evening really memorable.

Isabelle Faust © Felix Broede
Isabelle Faust
© Felix Broede

Carl Maria von Weber’s Overture to Euryanthe proved an ideal curtain-raiser. The essence of the opera is encapsulated in less than ten minutes. Opening in real swashbuckling style as in vintage Hollywood scores, Gardiner and the LSO immediately grabbed attention with their highly theatrical reading and made every second count. The middle-sized orchestra, based on five double-basses and with violins divided, ensured a pleasing balance. Incisive, hard-sticked timpani added to the drama, although the rasping trombones were less a worrying presence in the overall sound picture than the fierce low-vibrato strings. The pulsating, energetic style of much of Weber’s writing suited Gardiner’s approach well, but he also let the lyrical passages breathe. The eerie Largo section in Euryanthe, with the front desks of the muted violins meshing with the altos, was truly a time-suspending moment. The LSO played strongly, as they would for most of the evening, but nonetheless I have heard their upper strings more colourful, their woodwinds more characterful.

There was no lack of character in Faust’s performance however. Faust is no newcomer to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, but there wasn’t a trace of routine or complacency. A calm, gently commanding presence on stage, Faust’s playing was intense, full of life and energy, at times hypnotic, without ever becoming showy. Her “Sleeping Beauty” Stradivari is a magnificent instrument, its tone lean, transparent and full of contrast. Faust was reading the score as if discovering the music. Her impeccable balancing of grandeur and delicacy, of exuberance and introspection, quite naturally left no doubt she owned the music from first to last, as did her judicious use of vibrato and non-vibrato. She performed cadenzas based on Beethoven’s own piano concerto adaptation, including the delightful dialogue with the timpani in the first movement.

The coordination with the orchestra was complete and Gardiner ensured that the stage was set for his soloist with a superb airy introduction and always attentive accompaniment. As in the Weber, he gave it all shape with clear textures and sharp accents. Whilst soloist and conductor struck a proper balance, Faust remained audible by a margin in even the loudest tutti.

Gardiner’s reading of Schumann’s Third Symphony, the “Rhenish”, was for the most part very theatrical as well. Violins, woodwinds and brass performed standing up, emulating 19th century practices. The effect is quite different indeed. The musicians seemed to have a great time although they also lost some of their precision in ensemble at the start of the symphony and, again, the bright upper strings lacked body.

The vigorously rhythmical outer movements exuded an irresistible joie de vivre. This Schumann was definitely in high spirits, at times over the top, but great fun all the same. The LSO horns were on tremendous form this evening, and nowhere more so as in this symphony. The marcato passage in the “Lebhaft” first movement would have easily called the whole Rhineland to arms. The following scherzo had great lilt as well, while the central brief “Nicht schnell” movement flowed gently, featuring charming interplay between winds and strings. Bizarrely, the fourth movement, maestoso, was something of a letdown. The trombones hidden in the back behind the woodwinds made very little impact and even Gardiner’s treatment of the contrapuntal development sounded too calculated. Everything fell back into place again with an exhilarating finale and Gardiner gratified the standing ovation with the twinkling Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night's Dream.

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