On forming the Orchestra of the 18th Century, Frans Bruggen explained:
"I founded my own orchestra,
the Orchestra of the 18th Century, because orchestras of this type didn’t
exist [in 1981]. I wanted a performing orchestra to tour with…We all
know each other in our world so our orchestra consists of the best specialists
drawn from 19 countries. It’s a project orchestra. It exists only for
two or three periods each year but always with the same people. They
fly into Amsterdam or London, or any central place and after a week’s
rehearsal we go on tour."
Throughout the evenings immaculate
playing this ‘project orchestra’ produced a unique sound: refined, delicately
translucent textures, but with a great depth and richness not usually
associated with ‘period’ playing, where the reduced string section,
for instance, can often sound etiolated and wiry, and the period brass
sound merely tinny. While this was a reduced orchestra (with just three
double basses) it had as much weight and body as a full-scale ‘modern’
Bruggen seems to be one those
rare conductors who can negotiate (and overcome) the Barbican Hall’s
notoriously reverberant and stifled acoustics. Throughout, the conductor
mastered the marriage between space and sound, with the orchestral balance
being perfectly judged, with none of the congestion or blurring which
seem to be the rule at this venue.
While this seemed initially yet
another ‘classical pops programme’ the results were far from routine
or predictable: the reading of both scores was revelatory, making these
very familiar favourites feel like premieres.
Unexpectedly for this ‘classical’
conductor, the first movement of Schubert’s Eight’ Symphony was
taken very slowly, with the conductor adopting tempi reminiscent of
Karl Bohm’s turgid, romantic reading of the ‘Unfinished’, but in a classical
period style; a contradiction in terms in music!
In the second movement, Bruggen
got the tempi perfectly, making the music flow organically. Throughout
his beautifully prepared reading it was the incisive and crisp playing
of the timpanist, using hard sticks, that gave this deeply moving performance
a cutting edge. The use of hard sticks, essential for this tragic, brooding
symphony, revealed the importance of the timpani part, so often obscured
by the customary modern use of soft sticks.
Bruggen’s performance of Beethoven’s
Third Symphony ‘Eroica’ was a carefully thought out performance, with
structure, dynamics and orchestral balance having total unity. The first
movement - Allegro con brio - taken with the exposition repeat,
had a lucidity and lean economy verging on the skeletal: this was Beethoven
stripped bare of rhetorical excess with the structure of the music shining
through. Again, the use of hard sticks gave this movement greater intensity
and bite, particularly in the tight, assertive closing bars.
The Marcia funebre:
Adagio assai was taken at a brisk pace but in the context of Bruggen’s
‘period’ performance it did not feel rushed, and the drama and tension
were well sustained. With the short Scherzo, the woodwind were
perfectly balanced, with all the intricate detail coming through, while
the horns barked beautifully.
Bruggen launched straight into
the Finale: Allegro molto making the music sing with the angular
dance rhythms accentuated amidst the swirling woodwind and strings.
The closing passage for sustained strings and flute was very subdued
and measured which created even greater suspense and tension before
the orchestra launched into the closing bars, which exploded with penetrating
brass and timpani.
‘Period instrument’ orchestras
can be a bit of a lottery – one can never be sure that the music will
not sound merely anachronistically ‘quaint’. This doubt was quickly
put to flight by Bruggen’s total mastery of his orchestral resources,
and his highly intelligent reading of the works. What made his ‘period’
approach so refreshing was the incredible orchestral detail which came
through in both works, revealing innovatory, even revolutionary, elements
and textural beauties often submerged by today’s standardised, streamlined
treatment of Schubert and Beethoven.