Three symphonies in one evening is no easy feat for any performer, let alone standing up. The renowned conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner led his English Baroque Soloists and their authentic instruments through an evening of Mozart entitled “The Last Three Symphonies”.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner © Sheila Rock | Decca
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
© Sheila Rock | Decca
As the founder and artistic director of the orchestra, Gardiner came on stage with an assurance and confidence to perform, but also to educate. Gardiner’s approach to the evening’s concert was to ensure the audience would profit by providing a mini lecture and playing excerpts from each piece before performing the symphonies. He discussed the different emotions in the orchestral layers, the structure of the pieces and how some of the chord sequences were very advanced for the time of writing, in particular, where a twelve-tone row appears in the chords. This informal approach to the start of each symphony allowed a further engagement from the listener’s aspect.

The Symphony no. 40 in G minor K550, the middle of the three final symphonies, is the most well known of the trio. Its opening movement was performed in a light and energetic manner, but slowed towards the middle. The authentic woodwind twang was set against the strings, standing up for the night. This made their performance more dynamic but after an hour and a half of playing excerpts and two symphonies, their sound tired a little. This was perhaps due to the instruments not being retuned between the two symphonies and a symptom of the older instruments.

Symphony no. 41 in C K551 – the “Jupiter” – was rounded off with a full energetic swing with a fireworks style fugal explosion of music, fusing five melodies together. Symphony no. 39 in E flat K543 started with a few chords in the strings interrupted with a loud horn, a bit like a large ship passing. Gardiner created awareness for the unusual segments of Mozart’s works by drawing attention to them in his introductions, allowing them to be appreciated over the course of the evening. This refreshing approach to the music demonstrated that Gardiner was not frightened of appealing to new audiences, despite the very traditional appearance of bow ties and tailcoats for the male performers and black concert dresses for the ladies. More often than not, it is assumed that audiences will understand the music. To be able to break down the barriers and stigma sometimes attached to classical music without patronising the audience or dressing down in trainers and jeans was a great feat by Gardiner. His passion as a conductor was essential to the enjoyment of the concert and perhaps why he is so successful.

His English Baroque Soloists were magnificent as a whole. The structure on stage of the woodwind seated behind the standing strings was curious after Gardiner’s statement that the performers were better playing standing up, but the combination gave the right balance of sound for the symphonies. In the “Jupiter”, the horns were divided and placed higher to give them more importance, and considered a necessity by Gardiner to follow Mozart’s order to be as true to the original music as possible. After his statement about virtuosic performers, the expectations that the performers were going to compete and use heavy vibrato were subsequently quelled by their very neutral period performance of the music. The dynamics were appropriate and not over exaggerated and as realistic to the time as possible. The success of the evening led to hope of more similar events at the Colston Hall, where the fulfilling nature of Gardiner’s production was a resounding success. The combination of the three symphonies resulted in an evening that won't be forgotten in a hurry.

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