With global superpowers threatening to launch and shoot down missiles, it’s a difficult time to separate oneself entirely from the world. Sir Roger Norrington's all-Mozart programme with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the orchestra’s first performance there since the hall was refurbished, was a marvel in the way that it totally banished the negativity of the exterior and cast a spell that kept one entirely focused on Mozart – an absolute tonic.

Sir Roger Norrington conducts the OAE
© Belinda Lawley

Norrington, true to form, gave a genial welcome and emphasised his commitment to performing Mozart as the Austrian audience at the time would have heard it – cue a dig at his great nemesis, vibrato – and, for him, that entails applause between movements. Regardless of personal opinions on this, such an accessible and affable introduction is just the kind of response music-lovers need to those who claim elitism and a members-only attitude exists in Classical Music.

Norrington opened with Mozart’s Symphony no. 33 in B flat major and drew a joyful, effervescent account of the work. Playing was exceptionally tight; the strings in particular had bags of colour and warmness of tone. The only minor criticism that could be levelled would be at the horns, whose playing was broad but occasionally seemed to lack a precision and perkiness in the second movement that would have elevated the performance to something truly special. The first movement sparkled with the energy of the first dance of a ball; Norrington pushed the orchestra and the strings responded with vivid strength of attack. It made a fine contrast to the more restrained daintiness of the second movement, while the hair-raising tempi of the fourth movement had a showman’s feel about it, though there was no sacrifice of precision there.

The Symphony no. 36 in C major, the “Linz” closed the concert. First among equals here must surely have been timpanist Scott Bywater, whose splendid playing was the centrepiece of the performance, exhilarating in the finale where Norrington whipped up the OAE to such speeds and colours that the end was viewed with resentment. Trumpet reinforcement seemed to invigorate the horns which gained in precision, and there were some moments of touching sweetness in the Trio from oboe and bassoon. Norrington had arrayed the woodwind behind the violins on the left, but the sounds were still clear enough and provided a delicate layer above the gutsy strings. Credit to Norrington too for his ability to bring out the textures of the symphony, offer a polychromatic reading of the score.

Roger Montgomery and the OAE
© Belinda Lawley

Sandwiched between the two symphonies, the Horn Concerto nos. 4 in E flat major and 1 in D major were well served by Roger Montgomery. The Fourth was dispatched with authority and Montgomery brought glimmers of wit to the finale. Phrasing was attractively shaped, tone was bright and deep, and there was clear synthesis in approach between soloist and orchestra which brought out the best in both. The First was, in some ways, more interesting; with a troubled compositional and manuscript history, the two-movement concerto, left unfinished by the composer, has often been dismissed in part due to Süssmayr’s reconstruction attempts. We heard the horn player Stephen Robert’s reconstruction where his spirited and believably Mozartian Rondo seems a perfect partner to the composer’s own Allegro. Montgomery gave a persuasive performance, jaunty, fragrant and given with characteristic dexterity.

Norrington’s concert, as they always do, seemed special because he, Montgomery and the OAE seemed to be performing solely for the joy of hearing the music. Final mention must go to leader Michael Gurevich who had several excellent solo moments and dispatched these with restrained elegance.