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S & H Concert Review

Haydn, Beethoven, Pieter Wispelwey (cello), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Marc Minkowski, QEH, 20th May 2003 (AR)


Born in Paris in 1962, Marc Minkowski is regarded as one of today's foremost interpreters of baroque music, especially of rarely heard French and Italian works. He has championed music by Marais, Mouret, Charpentier, Lully and Rameau, and revived interest in lesser-known Handel operas, such as 'Teseo', 'Amadigi', 'Riccardo primo' and 'Ariodante'.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were the perfect group of instruments for this programme of classical works by Haydn and Beethoven. The main problem with listening to this concert was the boxy acoustic of the Queen Elizabeth Hall which conveyed little ambiance and bloom, making the orchestral textures seem more congested they need be. However, the combination of Minkowski and the OAE made music that was both invigorating and enlightening indeed.

Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No.104 ‘London’ came across as a far more radical sounding score than usual under Marc Minkowski’s rigorous and lithe direction. The opening Adagio had great power and a sense of noble grandeur with the hard stick timpani having great impact The development from the Adagio to the Allegro was rather fudged - a notoriously difficult transition – but things soon took off with passion and drive, with the brass especially coming through with a grainy intensity. The Andante was stripped bare of the usually sluggish, romantic inflections that many more ‘old fashioned’ conductors bring to it; here the music was urgent and full of drama.

Minkowski rightly made the Menuetto angular and strident giving this music a kind of tough elegance while the Finale:Spirito had great swagger and drive, with the horns especially projecting an eerie darkness. I have no doubt that this reading must be very close to how Haydn wanted us to hear this highly inventive and spirited symphony.

 

Haydn’s C major Cello Concerto was even better conducted than the ‘London’ symphony, and the playing of Pieter Wispelwey was extraordinary, producing a refreshingly rugged and radical style of playing. In the first movement Wispelwey chose to play with a rather gruff, rugged style emphasising the humour inherent in the music, as if sharing some private joke with orchestra and audience. The Adagio was rendered in a subdued and subtle manner, making his instrument sound extraordinarily distant. With the closing Allegro the cellist assumed a consciously gritty sound playing with incredible attack and expressiveness, but never sounding crude or heavy. The OAE gave a wonderfully spirited accompaniment to this exhilarating performance. For an encore we were treated to a sound bite from an unaccompanied Bach Cello Suite.

Minkowski’s reading of Beethoven’s Second Symphony was rhythmically taut and urgently brisk, his tempi sounding identical with those of Toscanini’s 1939 NBC SO account. From beginning to end this was an inspired, vital performance with all the musicians keeping an eye on each other as well as their director. I say director because Minkowski doesn’t so much ‘conduct’ as directs his players by queuing them in a more intimate fashion. While this period orchestra is obviously smaller than the modern standard symphony orchestra (having for instance just three double basses) they sounded full-bodied and weighty, producing a textured sound so apt for Beethoven. The use again of hard sticks and ‘raw’ metallic sounding horns and trumpets gave the music a more militaristic and radical dissonance, in contrast to the more emollient, streamlined, sound of modern symphony orchestras.

Not only were Minkowski’s tempi, athleticism, and rhythmic emphases close to Toscanini’s, but so also was the style of playing he got from the OAE, which was, at times surprisingly reminiscent of the much larger NBC SO: gutsy, grainy strings and raucous brass, forward pointed woodwind and firm timpani; all of which combined to dispel the popularly held misconception that music of the Age of Enlightenment was well-mannered, lightweight and pretty.

This excellent concert clearly demonstrated how Haydn and Beethoven should be heard: as radical composers and not Eighteenth Century curios.

Alex Russell


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