This all-Mozart programme was particularly fitting, arriving in Birmingham two days after the composer’s birthday, and there was no danger of boredom setting in with performances as delightfully enjoyable as these from Robert Levin and the Academy of Ancient Music. I understand that Christopher Hogwood had been intended to conduct the concert originally but the AAM founder sadly passed away in September last year. The quality of this concert spoke volumes about Hogwood’s work with the ensemble.

Robert Levin © Ascherman
Robert Levin
© Ascherman

 Levin clearly delights in performing the works of a composer he is so immersed in the scholarship of. He positively bounded onto the stage and was rarely to be seen without a smile at this or that detail in the music. In the overture and symphony, he was no mere time-beater. Rather he would thrust and parry with his bare fists, draw phrases in the air and generally ‘throw shapes’. While this was most entertaining to behold, the real action was taking place in the orchestra. The AAM fielded just twelve violinists with first and second violins seated opposite one another across the front of the stage. This music demands such an arrangement and Levin pointed up all Mozart’s interesting second violin lines wherever they featured in the music. The small ensemble size enabled the woodwind players to be seated much further forward thereby ensuring their parity with the strings in the proceedings. These were all works in which Mozart made soloists of the woodwind principals and their sublime contributions were always clearly audible in contrast with many a modern instrument orchestra performance.

After a sparkling Nozze di Figaro Overture, Levin explained that his decision to perform an improvisatory prelude was based on a tradition in Mozart’s time that was supposed to ameliorate the jarring effect of moving between unrelated keys. Levin, a master improviser, gave us a brief riff on material from the overture, quickly moving from the bright D major to the shadowy C minor. Barely a moment passed before the orchestral introduction to the Piano Concerto No 24 was ushered in without pause. Tempi were on the fleet side throughout the concert. This made the C minor piano concerto exciting but perhaps lacking the profundity of slightly broader accounts. Nevertheless, there was much to enjoy due to the dark timbre of the period instruments.

In the concertos, Levin shared direction duties with leader, Pavlo Beznosiuk, who secured key orchestral exits and codas using his bow. Levin, for his part, pointed here and there to cue or simply highlight key instrumental passages. The many gestures to instrumentalists sitting behind him (his fortepiano was in the centre of the ensemble, oriented so that he faced out towards the audience) made for quite a spectacle.

Balance was not always ideal. Levin’s fortepiano was not always clearly audible above the orchestra in accompanied solo passages. I imagine that audience members sitting in the higher echelons of the hall would have had some difficulty hearing him. Nevertheless, my ear adjusted with time and the effect was almost to draw the audience in closer for a more intimate performance. I noticed the deficiency less in the C major concerto, in which the AAM tutti sound really bloomed. The first movement is a gleeful reminder that Beethoven was far from the first composer to use the emphatic four note same-note motif made famous in his fifth symphony. Mozart and Haydn, in particular, were keen on it too. The effect is rather different in this work and Levin and the AAM made it feel almost comic in its timing. Timing was of the essence for the AAM players having to anticipate the right moment to re-enter after Levin’s breathtakingly virtuosic and improvised cadenza. This sort of thrill is simply not to be found in most conventional performances, which this most engaging of pedagogues was keen to remind us in the gap between the first and second movements. The gut strings made Mozart’s magical piannissimo dynamics particularly special in the slower central movement, which is full of harmonic surprises. Here, Levin was as much an accompanist as soloist.

After a boisterous third movement, Levin and the AAM returned to the key of D major for Mozart’s infectious Haffner symphony. Timpanist, Benedict Hoffnung, deserves special mention here for some virtuoso playing: really rattling in the opening bars and somehow keeping up with Levin’s ever-so-slightly too fast tempo for the final movement, which was thrilling but meant Mozart’s funkier passages did not quite register as they should. Nevertheless, this was a performance to admire. I particularly enjoyed how we were able to hear the violas’ statement of the main theme in the first movement so clearly, almost as if there were no other musicians playing. The interplay between the rasping natural horns and strident valveless trumpets was another highlight, setting the seal on a performance of great fun and distinction.