Mozart’s last three symphonies were scheduled and three played, but this concert at the Anvil, featuring the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was quite literally a game of two halves. In a brief introduction Iván Fischer encouraged the audience to imagine we would be hearing twelve individual movements rather than three symphonies. He also invited applause between each movement (presumably a nod in the direction of recreating 18th-century concert practice of expressing feelings at every opportunity) and announced the interval would be ‘somewhere’. An intriguing opening gambit that recalled Monty Python’s “And Now for Something Completely Different”.

Iván Fischer © Akos Stiller
Iván Fischer
© Akos Stiller

And so it turned out to be when Fischer casually took an interval break after the Andante of Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 in G minor. Refreshingly different or a chance for traditionalists to grind their teeth? Variety for variety’s sake or an occasion to view concert performance from a new perspective? This (wilful) disregard for convention neatly drew attention to changes of personnel during the second half – off went two clarinettists and on came two trumpeters and a timpanist. Hardly a reason you might think for interrupting one of Mozart’s greatest works just so a conductor can better illustrate changes in timbre. Yet, objections were mute, judging from reactions around me, most people (including a heartening number of youngsters) content to have their expectations confounded. Perhaps Fischer subscribes to the notion (to borrow from LP Hartley) that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there …”

Concert arrangements aside, the performances under Fischer’s relaxed direction grew in stature, with playing that constantly drew the ear towards Mozart’s shifting sonorities and variegated timbres. If the string section of the OAE, with antiphonal violins, wasn’t always precision engineered in the Symphony no. 39 in E flat major, thundering tuttis filled the air in its opening movement, dramatic vistas were underlined, and its musical logic despatched with aplomb. Violin intonation didn’t always convince in the slow movement, but Mozart’s gift for creating timbral variety was beautifully achieved in imitative woodwind phrases, clarinets conspicuous for their woody tone and horns adding spice to the sonorities. Once the players had retuned, the Menuetto moved onto a new level, everything lifted into place, strings now irreproachable, mellifluous flute and liquid clarinet conversing merrily in the Trio as if inviting one another to dance, trumpets and timpani adding their own rustic glamour. A festive spirit imbued the finale, the players responding keenly to Fischer’s puppet-like direction – all elbows and bent knees – the music-making infectious.

Accented rhythms and nuanced dynamics enriched Symphony no. 40 in G minor, woodwind again (now joined by two oboes) ravishing the ear and tart horns provided additional frisson. The Andante was startling for its pathos, Fischer now probing the emotional heart of the work and evoking Mozart staring into the abyss. An equally arresting Menuetto brought plenty of vitality where, in a movement where everyone enjoys a brief moment in the sun, the OAE was on superlative form, orchestral colours more than ever splendidly vibrant. The violins had truly found their form too in a stylish finale, now playing as if shaking hands with an old friend.

And on to the Jupiter, Mozart’s farewell to a genre he had been cultivating intermittently for over twenty years. And what a powerful farewell this was; its opening purposeful and bristling with energy, expanding into a first movement of trenchant rhythm and sparkling detail. The Andante was no less communicative in its shapely phrasing, with felicitous contributions from bassoon and flute. I’ve heard faster performances of the finale, but there was no gainsaying exhilaration here, the whole just shy of a wow factor but it was fascinating to hear attention given to fleeting melodic angularities and see a pair of oboists comically stand for two sprightly phrases like jack-in-the-boxes. Cheesy, but arguably ‘all in the best possible taste’. Mozart would have loved it and so did this enraptured audience.

****1