It is always a risk and a pleasure to programme some of the most well known works in the classical repertoire, and Italy’s Orchestra Mozart, joined by young Venezuelan conductor Diego Matheuz and pianist Maria João Pires, had some of the favourites on show in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Thursday evening.

Maria João Pires © Felix Broede / DG
Maria João Pires
© Felix Broede / DG

They opened the concert with the effervescent overture to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Racing through the musical themes at a rate of knots, the score is overflowing with typical Mozartian comedy and fast-paced melodic ideas that never quite come to their conclusion. The tempo was always moving forward, giving the performance a sense of daring and anticipation, which the incredibly precise playing never allowed to falter. Matheuz’s conducting was understated and playful, and completely memorised, which was highly impressive.

We then welcomed Pires to the stage for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor. A typically large-scale work, written in 1800, it was not finally premièred until 1803, and even then the score was incomplete and Beethoven improvised much of the virtuosic piano part. Tonight’s performance was no less impressive, with the fiendishly difficult cadenza passages managed with flair and the equally tricky accompanimental figures always well balanced and even. The highly dramatic first movement began with an ominous feel and the clean lines of the strings introduced the first themes with beautiful phrasing. After a tense and emotional development, the fiery piano cadenza launches straight into the tumultuous coda section without a break and storms to the end of the movement. The dramatic contrast with the dreamy second movement revealed some moving phrasing and articulation with beautifully even passages in thirds in the second theme. The Rondo follows without a break, with a cheeky theme which suited the playful nature of the orchestral group. The returning theme had a new meaning at each appearance and the fugal section, with the theme moving up from the bass created a web of interlocking melodies which gained ever more complexity before winding up the emotional drama toward the end.

This kind of complexity was only the beginning for Beethoven, as can be seen in the Symphony no. 3 in E flat, commonly known as the Eroica. Written in 1803, this work was inspired by two important forces in Beethoven’s life. One was political – the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to power – and the other physical – he was fast losing his hearing and was finding it difficult to cope; he even contemplated suicide at this time. These two influences undoubtedly account for the raw emotion and drama felt in the Eroica, which opens with the unmistakably emphatic chords leading into a twisting and turning cello theme. Exuberant horns and solo phrases that were seamlessly passed around the orchestra kept the audience on the edge of their seats and Matheuz was a master of keeping the tension bubbling away, just under wraps, before letting the orchestra loose on the climaxes. The funeral march of the second movement featured a hauntingly beautiful oboe solo with rumbling timpani. The bass instruments were suitably menacing, contrasting with the soothing second theme in the major. Another double fugue intensifies the complexity before the inevitable march closes the movement.

Changing mood once again, Beethoven now writes a playful Scherzo movement with virtuosic horn sections in a hunting style, before we are thrown straight into a wonderfully inventive set of variations to close the symphony. The deceptively sweet and innocent theme takes us on a mini tour of the orchestra and there seems to be no end to Beethoven’s ideas and creativity, until a rousing final coda ends the whirlwind with a masterful flourish. The tumultuous applause for Matheuz and Orchestra Mozart was well deserved indeed.

****1