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
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.
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.