A concert of “Classical music” very narrowly defined, before those Proto-Romantics Beethoven and Schubert added extra drama and pathos, and the era’s classical purity and balance prevailed no more. Music’s development brings losses as well as gains of course, but who better to help us regain our 18th-century ears than the English Baroque Soloists under their founder and Artistic Director Sir John Eliot Gardiner, and what better location than a classical building like London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields?

Sir John Eliot Gardiner
© Paul Marc Mitchell

Haydn’s Symphony no. 84 in E flat major is one of the more neglected of his six Paris symphonies, related it was said, whether as cause or effect, to its lack of a nickname, though the sobriquet “In nomine Domini” is sometimes seen. Not that the work is religious, but full of secular, even rustic, pleasures. Thus the Minuet has more of the heavy stamp of the tavern than the light tripping of the court, relished here by the EBS players. The wind cadenza of the Andante was a pungent delight with these period instruments, and the Vivace finale was spirited indeed. Sometimes the swift tempi Gardiner set, and his fondness for a sharp attack, while exhilarating in themselves, obscured the detail in the teeming invention of the monothematic outer movements from this most cerebral of the great symphonists.

But was it the tempi? St Martin-in-the-Fields is a very high but not very long space. The EBS toured this programme from the start of this week to Cologne, Wolfsburg and Vienna, so their last venue was the Musikverein, whose gilded hall is very different from St Martin’s. Here we had a big band, as befits music for the Paris of its day, with 30 string players named in the booklet (no. 84 adds a flute and pairs of oboes, horns and bassoons). From Row F of the stalls the Haydn tuttis could sound almost raucous, so one feared the next sforzando, even with no trumpets and drums. So for the sole work in the second half, Mozart’s Symphony no. 36 in C major, the “Linz”, which does use trumpets and drums and gives them plenty to do, I sought a seat at the top, next to the organ, as far from the band as the venue offers. All was transformed, in a stirring performance with inner lines now revealed, yet still lively resonance and impact. The wise men and women who booked early and paid top price to sit so far from the action, were acoustically shrewd.

Between the symphonies was the greatest delight of the concert, because the most rare, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola in E flat major, with Isabelle Faust and Antoine Tamestit, no less. Not that the work is neglected, but these artists have plenty of solo work coming their way and we were grateful they made time to share a platform, and share the bewitching give-and-take of their music. When playing quartets, Mozart preferred the viola, so it is no second fiddle here, not least thanks to its retuning the composer requires. Tamestit’s warm and woody tone contrasted ideally with Faust’s brightness, both artists duetting hand in glove, even in the swift passages needing alert articulation. They were rewarded with big cheers and hugs from the conductor. The concert now moves to Budapest and Munich, and was recorded here for a later showing on “Stage +”, Deutsche Grammophon’s new streaming service. 

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