If there's one thing you can be sure of, Isabelle Faust could never be typecast. From Bach, through Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann to Berg, Ligeti and Nono, Faust has proved to be a mercurial musical thinker, a champion of new music seeking to challenge the status quo and find a different angle, sometimes exchanging her Stradivarius for period instruments when she feels the need. This time, Classical was the order of the day as she joined the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, directed by Matthew Truscott, in a programme of music by CPE Bach, Haydn and Mozart, all written within a seven-year period and collectively capturing the significant changes taking place at one of the pinch-points of 18th-century musical development.
Faust and the OAE delivered immaculate and crystal clear performances of these works. Starting with Haydn's Symphony no. 49 in F minor, "La Passione", this 1768 piece was the last symphony he wrote using the sonata da chiesa pattern (slow-fast-slow-fast). With this farewell to the past, Haydn was also breaking new ground with his dramatic Sturm und Drang ("storm and stress") style, which promoted a freer and more extravagant expression of emotions more akin to the Romantic era. The OAE was straight in, full of brooding intensity and accentuating the sudden changes in dynamics, showing brightness in the major keys. The two fast movements had a vigorous and nervous energy, played at a relentless pace, with the bouncing strings scrubbing away against the warmth of the horns and softness of the Baroque oboes, which peeked through purposefully at key moments. The echoed phrases of the plaintive and stately Minuet were nicely observed.
Faust then entered for the first of two Mozart concertos, his Violin Concerto no. 1 in B flat major, K207, written in 1773. His remaining four violin concertos were written two years later, and Faust also presented the last of these, his Violin Concerto no. 5 in A major, "Turkish", K219, to close the second half. These were refined performances of considerable purity and charm, with a leanness that gave a thinner texture and created a more modern and slightly steely edge, as if to provide an antidote to the more lush renditions of the past. This actually lent itself quite well to the essence of Mozart's music, with both Faust and the OAE aerating the music to let it breathe naturally and show how Mozart was transforming concerto writing.
Faust's quicksilver playing was crisp and articulate, with poise through the decorative twirls and effortless changes between legato and staccato. It was not without warmth either, and the B flat concerto showed Faust skilfully mixing characteristic Mozartian drama with youthful exuberance. But it was her clean tone, sparing use of light vibrato and attention to detail that shone through. In the A major concerto, Faust was mesmerising in both her opening solo and in the expansive Adagio, as she wandered through its emotional complexities, bow gliding lightly over the strings evoking an ethereal dialogue with thoughtful reflection, and the alla turca episode in the French-style Rondeau was refreshing and full of vitality.
In between the two Mozart concertos, the OAE presented CPE Bach's inventive Symphony in G major, Wq182/1. CPE Bach was an important catalyst between Baroque and Classical, with an intense period of creativity and a new style being developed following the death of Bach and Handel. This symphony, one of his remarkable "Hamburg" symphonies for strings written in 1773, had the OAE vibrant and flighty in the outer movements, meandering through the unexpected twists and turns and accentuating the melodic contrasts and unpredictable harmonic shifts with enthusiasm and ease. The central Poco adagio movement was leisurely and stoic, and the players showed impressive dexterity in the thrusting Presto.
As an encore, Mozart's Rondo in C for violin and orchestra, K373, was presented as a throwaway gesture, ending proceedings with a Mozartian flick of the wrist and capping off a truly classy Classical performance.
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