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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


CPE Bach, J Haydn and Mozart: Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Ton Koopman, Alte Oper, Frankfurt, January 15, 2005 and JS Bach and Mozart: English Chamber Orchestra, Shlomo Mintz, Alte Oper, Frankfurt, January 18, 2005 (SM)

Admittedly, the so-called early music movement and its fierce scholars, which have now moved firmly into the mainstream, may not have all the answers when it comes to performing classical and baroque music. There are even heretics who argue that the spare, vibrato-less lines and mercilessly pared-down ensembles favoured by the Harnoncourts and Gardiners of today are merely a 20th-century invention that will eventually prove to be just a passing fad.
But there is no getting away from the fact that our perception of music from renaissance times right through to the 19th century has been radically and invaluably changed and revitalised by performances on so-called period instruments.


And any self-respecting modern symphony or chamber orchestra nowadays readily takes on board the wealth of knowledge and wisdom amassed by so-called early music pioneers. In fact, the initial barriers of animosity and distrust between the period music fanatics and the traditional musical establishment have now been broken down almost completely, as evidenced by the fact that Harnoncourt and Co. frequently conduct juggernaut ensembles such as the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics.


A shining example of just how refreshing such cross-fertilisation can be was a concert by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Ton Koopman in Frankfurt's Alte Oper on Friday, January 15. On the programme were two Sinfonias by CPE Bach, an organ concerto by Haydn and Mozart's Jupiter Symphony. The excellent RSO Frankfurt are no strangers to period practice - their wonderful chief conductor Hugh Wolff regularly programmes baroque and early classical repertoire that sparkles and energises and allows audiences to leave the concert hall with a new skip in their step. But with the sprite, white-bearded Koopman on the podium and behind the organ, it could easily have been a specialist early music group on stage, so lean and lithe was their phrasing, so delicate their intonation and their articulation.


CPE Bach's subversive Sinfonias astonished with their abrupt changes in mood and harmony, Haydn's organ concerto delighted and the Jupiter truly bristled with electricity. The evening was a pure joy. Mozart's 41st symphony formed the common link with a concert on the same stage just four days later by the venerable English Chamber Orchestra under violin virtuoso Shlomo Mintz. But what a difference those four days made. Mintz either has no truck whatsoever with period music specialists or the advances in musicology over the past thirty years have simply passed him by.


Before the interval Mintz himself was the soloist in Bach's E-major violin concerto and the glorious A-major KV 219 by Mozart. There is no doubting his technical prowess. And his warm, singing lines and rich vibrato sound, at their best, simply gorgeous. There is nothing wrong, either, in wanting to offer an antidote to early music ascetics, giving us Bach and Mozart in good old 1960s widescreen technicolour. But there was simply no heart to this music. It was cold and soulless. Mintz strode on stage and made sure we knew he could play music infinitely more difficult than this with his eyes shut. And he rattled off the Allegro of Bach's A-minor Sonata as an encore (with both repeats) with enviable ease. But you couldn't help getting the feeling that the music was merely a vehicle for Mintz's own ego, not the other way round.


Things took a decided turn for the worse after the interval when the violinist took up the baton for the Jupiter symphony. It is a truism to say that even the best instrumental or vocal soloists may not make great conductors. But Mintz's conducting was simply a shambles. Anyone can get up in front of a band of professional musicians nowadays and wave a stick just to keep time. But the way in which Mintz wantonly jerked and wobbled the baton in his right hand and paddled clumsily with his left with not even the slightest indication of the time signature was shocking for a musician of his stature.


While Koopman had coaxed and shaped the sound out of the Frankfurt RSO with his bare hands on Friday, Mintz lumbered aimlessly around, pointing his stick in this way and that with no apparent rhyme or reason. And the result sounded as bad as it looked -- a stodgy, sticky, formless mess.


The Frankfurt audience, not exactly known for its musical discernment, lapped it up with furious applause. And I'm sure there was an encore. But I admit I did not wait to see if there would be any second helpings and left as quickly as possible via the nearest exit.



Simon Morgan




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)