As musicians, conductor Bernard Haitink and pianist Maria João Pires have certain qualities in common – they both display a serenity, exquisite control and a dedicated yet no-nonsense attitude to performance. It may sound a cliché, but for both of them, it’s not about themselves but it’s all about the music and the composer. Joined by the equally dedicated and passionate musicians of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, they gave a beautifully poised, unaffected and classically proportioned performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major and two of Schubert’s symphonic works.

Maria João Pires © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Maria João Pires
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Not many pianists manage to produce magic in a Mozart piano concerto, especially in the not-so-intimate surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall, but Pires certainly did, drawing the audience into her crystalline performance of the A major concerto K488. What is most impressive about her playing is that she plays with such simplicity and serenity that it almost seems as if she is doing nothing out of the ordinary. But as is often said, playing Mozart is never as simple as it looks, and her playing was truly special. Her demeanour is so natural that many times during the performance, I forgot her presence at the piano, was purely listening to Mozart's music and did not worry or even notice about her articulation or phrasing. Pires and Haitink totally transported me to the heart of the music. Haitink too conducted with natural elegance with just enough control, gently leading the orchestra in perfect ensemble with the pianist. The flute and the clarinets contributed beautifully, as well as the warm, glowing strings.

I found the first movement most satisfying, which moved seamlessly from one section to the next without any loss in tension or jaggedness between the solo and orchestras sections – especially the build up of the climax just before the cadenza was perfectly rendered. The F sharp minor second movement was performed too with simplicity and serenity, bringing out a tinge of sadness but not wallowing in it, and Pires and the woodwind players (special mention to the solo bassoon) succeeded in creating an intimate chamber-music feel. The rondo finale was spirited with light, delightful episodes.

Bernard Haitink © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Bernard Haitink
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The Mozart concerto was sandwiched between two C major symphonic works by the most Viennese of all composers, Franz Schubert. His overture “In the Italian Style” which opened the concert was composed in 1824, and the “Italian Style” obviously alludes to Rossini’s operas which were all the rage in Vienna at the time (and which Beethoven resented). It is a lightweight and charming work without any real angst; following the slow introduction, the main theme is a parody of Rossini, although the way he treats it harmonically has a Schubertian flavour. Listening to this piece, it is difficult to imagine that in three year’s time he would be composing the great C major symphony (as well as his late piano sonatas). It is quite astonishing how he reached such maturity both compositionally as well as emotionally in the intervening three years. Haitink kept the forward-moving momentum of the piece, and shaping the melodies with elegance, which were played beautifully by the woodwind principals.

The “Great C major” Symphony was given a masterly, well-proportioned, elegant and rhythmically articulate performance. Tempi were meticulously thought out by Haitink and his overall sense of structure of the work was totally convincing, maintaining the pulse yet letting the music flow. The work was executed magnificently with vibrant and spirited ensemble by the versatile musicians of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. The opening trombones played with a dark-hued sonority, which blended well with the general orchestral sound. The strings in the second movement – especially the violas and cellos in the B section – had a warm and deeply resonant sound that easily filled the RAH. For all its magnificence though, I must admit that I did have slight reservations about the performance, and it was probably that for me at least, the work felt too solid at times and I missed the Viennese Gemütlichkeit, especially in the second and third movements. But this is more a matter of personal taste, and as performances of this “Great C major” Symphony goes, this was exemplary on all levels.