There was more than a touch of déjà vu at work this evening: the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment chopping up a classical symphony and splicing in operatic arias performed by a mezzo-soprano. Last February, it was Ádám Fischer doing the honours, twinkling through Mozart’s Prague Symphony, acting as a foil for Stéphanie d’Oustrac. A year on and the hyperactive Italian, Giovanni Antonini, took over the OAE podium for the four movements of Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 in G minor, interleaved with arias sung by Czech mezzo Magdalena Kožená. It’s clearly a recipe that works.

Magdalena Kožená © Oleg Rostovtsev
Magdalena Kožená
© Oleg Rostovtsev

The “traditional” concert format of overture–concerto–symphony is relatively recent. In Mozart’s day, it was quite usual to split up a symphony and throw in any number of works into the mix, including operatic arias sung by a celebrated performer. A change in programming began when Haydn, irritated that latecomers were missing his works, would shunt the entire symphony into the second half. Breaking up Mozart 40, according to oboist Daniel Bates in his spoken introduction after the interval, allowed the players to regroup and attack the symphony with even more vigour.

There was vigour aplenty in the OAE’s account – happily, the version including clarinets – balancing sweetness and abrasiveness in the Molto allegro opening. Antonini, frequently holding his arms aloft like an eagle searching for a thermal, was entertaining to watch, soaring, swooping, crouching low. There was always a sense of purpose in the Andante and the Minuet was nicely pointed. The flute did not always sing out cleanly in the invigorating finale, where the string assault was almost percussive.

Magdalena Kožená doesn’t always look entirely at home on the concert platform and there were early signs of insecurity here: mannered hand movements and a trill that lacked fluency in the alternative version of Susanna’s aria from Le nozze di Figaro. Seated in front of the conductor during a particularly ferocious Dance of the Furies, a look of alarm crossed her face more than once.

Magdalena Kožená, Giovanni Antonini, Antony Pay and the OAE © Mark Pullinger
Magdalena Kožená, Giovanni Antonini, Antony Pay and the OAE
© Mark Pullinger

Kožená’s bottom notes often sound hollow; the glory comes as she scales the heights, where warm vibrato colours her distinctive tone. It wasn’t until Haydn’s Scena di Berenice – a dramatic concert aria more gripping than any of his operas – that Kožená hit her stride, delivering the recitatives urgently. D’Oustrac also included Berenice last season, but it’s a piece worthy of every outing it gets.

After the interval, without a music stand as audience barrier, Kožená looked far more relaxed. It helped that “Di questa cetra in seno” from Gluck’s Il parnaso confuso fits her like a glove, accompanied by sinewy violas, pizzicato violins imitating the lyre. Sesto’s two arias from Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito were both outstanding. “Deh per questo istante solo” was melting in its sincerity, artfully phrased. “Parto, parto” – which d’Oustrac also sang – found Kožená gently sparring with the florid obbligato of Antony Pay’s basset clarinet, again played from the front of the stage. Her second exclamation of “Guardami” was deliciously floated, while she matched the basset in the twists and turns of the finale nimbly.

Kožená switched to Cherubino for a very knowing “Voi che sapete” encore, the OAE string players delivering their mock-guitar pizzicatos wreathed in smiles.