The night had a programme of three soloists, three pieces and three significant composers in music history – Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The concept of the concert was to display a span of music from the high Classical era to the early Romantic, where each of the composers overlap in style through three generations. Haydn was known for establishing the symphony, and so we heard his ‘London Symphony’, no. 104, which is the last symphony of twelve that he wrote late in his life over two visits to England. Mozart was famous for his setting of solo instruments juxtaposed against an orchestral texture, whereas Beethoven developed the ideas of the two earlier composers. In his Triple Concerto he created a piece for three soloists set against an orchestral texture and demonstrated his mastery of the balance between the different instruments and musical ideas.

A packed hall at St. George’s, Bristol applauded the arrival of Steven Isserlis on stage to direct the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, whose philosophy is to communicate straight through the music, rather than via a conductor. In Haydn’s ‘London’ Symphony, this is particularly effective, as the composition is a sort of musical conversation; it was almost as though the instruments were having a chat. Isserlis faced the orchestra and played from the full score, leaning or smiling in the direction of whichever instrument was due next. Though he was effectively leading, he cleverly blended his sound into the orchestra. The symphony itself started with an Adagio-Allegro section and teased the audience through different ideas, until we heard the magnificently played opening theme of the Allegro Spirituoso, which is allegedly based on a street seller’s cry of ‘Hot cross buns!’ In the build-up of the movements, some wonderfully big chords were coupled with brief pauses, and a glimpse could be caught of Isserlis enjoying satisfying moments with a smile. A truly eminent cellist, Isserlis’ timing was perfect and the performers had fun with the piece; it was joyous to watch.

Steven Isserlis
Steven Isserlis

The Violin Concerto no. 3 in G is a typical example of Mozart’s virtuoso works. His father Leopold had published a manual on violin method (a do-it-yourself virtuoso violin book) and as a result had steered his son away from the instrument. Finally when Mozart was able to get his hands on a violin, he played a trio that the family had been practising almost perfectly. This led to him writing five violin concertos in 1775 for court entertainment, and this composition was the third of these. Isabelle Faust is an extraordinarily talented musician, not to mention stylish. She performed this piece with impeccable timing, playing meticulously. Faust not only mastered the challenging passages with ease, but also executed every note with poise and precision. The delicacy of some of the quiet high notes in her cadenzas was breathtaking, and the audience were unusually quiet in these moments. One lady in the audience smiled in disbelief every time she played a complex passage. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment complemented Faust on stage, studying her closely, resulting in a truly excellent and faultless performance.

Despite such a perfect first half of the concert, the highlight of the evening was saved until last. An extraordinary display of talent took place as Faust, Isserlis and Robert Levin took to the stage as soloists for the Beethoven Triple Concerto. This piece was one of only two ‘Sinfonie Concertante’ (for more than one solo instrument with orchestra) that Beethoven composed. With such a fantastic line up of soloists, it was always going to be a fantastic rendition. Robert Levin joined Isserlis and Faust as the third soloist, playing on a traditional pianoforte. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment play on authentic period instruments, and so did all three soloists this evening. The interaction and chemistry between the musicians on stage was captivating to watch, particularly in the playful Rondo middle movement. Big chords were met with an arm in the air from Robert Levin behind his music. A point in the last movement where the piano rumbled with some unusually low trills added to the excitement of the piece.

The concert could be likened to a chocolate truffle – it was a sumptuously rare treat, terribly indulgent, yet delicious. This was a truly enjoyable evening and fantastic concert.