Perhaps the best jokers keep the straightest faces. For much of this evening at Wigmore Hall, the body language of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra portrayed serious musicians going about their serious business. Gottfried von der Goltz directed from the violin, his players dutifully following. Precision, polish, professionalism. Yet musically, the evening was life-affirming, a thing of joy, with all the fun coming from the playing itself.

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra © Marco Borggreve
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
© Marco Borggreve

Mozart’s music looks deceptively simple on manuscript paper, but experience reveals that it’s ridiculously difficult to play well. There is a perfection about the writing which is very difficult to attain in performance. It’s almost impossibly beautiful and in trying to play it perfectly, performances can risk sounding a little bland. An element of risk, throwing caution to the wind, was therefore welcome right from the start. Opening with the Serenata Notturna, the Freiburg playing immediately grabbed the ear: attractive, airy string tone, punctuated by clipped timpani strokes. Indeed, the timps took centre stage at the front of the platform, Charlie Fischer demonstrating a full range of performance styles from hard mallet heads – as is the norm in historically informed circles – to playing with stick handles, using his hands, and even picking up one drum and shaking it in a witty third movement mini-cadenza. By that point, we’d already delighted in the chirruping violin grace notes in the Minuet, deliciously naughty string portamenti and an ebullient double bass cadenza. Mozart’s score chuckled and burbled along merrily, the solo group of violins, viola and bass sparring with the larger string body.

Further aural delights amused in the Piano Concerto no. 12 in A major, Kristian Bezuidenhout at the fortepiano, joining the orchestra in the opening tutti. The Allegro was full of skittish rough and tumble as musical arguments were tossed back and forth. Tangy oboes and ripe horns added flavour to the Freiburg string sound. There was a purposeful tread to the Andante, although still allowing the solo line to breathe. The Rondeau finale was a burst of sunshine. Bezuidenhout drew a fine array of colours from his fortepiano, von der Goltz making sure his 15 string players didn’t submerge the soloist.

Buoyant tempi characterized the Divertimento K138, serious facial expressions masking the music’s high spirits. The Presto finale was treated with a good deal of stylish vigour, which was similarly present in the Symphony no. 33 in B flat. Aggressive string playing and an added pair of bassoons contrasted well against lighter textures in the Allegro assai opening movement. The Minuet, which Mozart added later to expand the symphony’s original three movements, was suitably light-hearted, while the finale – another Allegro assai – bristled with energy and good humour.

The surprise element in the concert came via Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto. Considered the ‘clown prince’ of the orchestra, the instrument’s flatulent abilities make it ripe for musical jokes and high jinks. Yet Javier Zafra’s performance was relatively sober, if elegantly performed. He neatly dispatched the flurry of notes with which Mozart showered the first movement and lent a cantabile quality to the second. Musical japes and jests were few here, but the musicianship from all, including a reappearance from Bezuidenhout at the fortepiano, was sensitive throughout. Sometimes, the joker can play ‘the straight role’.