Second concert by Freiburg Baroque Orchestra

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra conducted by René Jacobs with Gottfried von der Goltz (violin) – second concert

Symphony No 92 in G (‘Oxford’ – Haydn), Violin Concerto No 5 in A, K 219 (‘Turkish’ – Mozart), Symphony No 41 in C, K 551 (‘Jupiter’ – Mozart)

Wellington Town Hall

Thursday 18 March 2010

These two concerts brought what is widely regarded and one of the half dozen finest period instrument orchestras to us.  It’s just as well such a band comes to play the great music of the late 18th century, as the big symphony orchestras don’t play it much anymore, having become embarrassed about it over the past 30 years for fear of criticism from the early music purists: Haydn, Mozart, even early Beethoven.

The orchestra comprises excellent musicians who, even without the discipline of a conductor, produces performances that are arresting and idiomatic, flexible and in perfect accord. That was the effect of hearing Mozart’s ‘Turkish’ violin concerto in which the soloist, von der Goltz, the orchestra’s concertmaster, made the running in its interpretation, in its rhythms and tempo:  was it fair to wonder whether Jacobs’s influence was tempered here, without the somewhat curious speeds and sudden rallentandi that characterised the two symphonies, particularly the Jupiter?

The concerto is an extraordinary piece for a 19-year-old. The rising arpeggios of its opening phase had all the speed needed, coloured by restrained vibrato; he was not shy of giving different shapes to the ornaments, of putting the stress, unusually, on the second beat, of taking his opportunities to elaborate phrases with little cadenza-like flourishes. All this was arguably in keeping with knowledge of 18th century practice, though I felt that the main first movement cadenza had echoes of the 19th century. The second movement found the soloist in a state of exquisite calm, playing with an intimacy of tone peculiar to the baroque violin. It lent a startling contrast to the last movement where the Turkish elements, popular in Vienna at this time, burst upon it and where an authentic sounding vigour emerged.

The two symphonies were presented in a way that inhabited a sound world that was rather more different from we are used to with conventional orchestras. Here, with Jacobs himself fully in charge, there was much to admire, in the warm sounds of the flute and the two wooden oboes, the natural horns and trumpets, enhanced by the clarity of the Town Hall; the hard timpani were distinctive, but after a while their sound seemed to become slightly dislocated from the ensemble of the rest of the orchestra.

I hardly recognized the slow movement of the Oxford Symphony though it was one of the pieces that I played, as cellist, in a predecessor of the Wellington Youth Orchestra a long time ago. And there were speeds that were, shall we say, surprising, even though one has heard this music played rather like this on record often enough. I was open to persuasion, and enjoyed the performance though I will also continue to enjoy full-blooded performances (if any) by conventional symphony orchestras.

Jacobs’ field extends from Monteverdi through Bach and Gluck and as far north as Mozart, and really, no further: for him perhaps, Mozart is cutting-edge contemporary. Much of the performance of the Jupiter symphony was simply alive and filled with energy; though we are very familiar with ‘historically informed’ performances, it was still stimulating to hear live, such a performance of a masterpiece that sits very much in the modern symphonic tradition. So it sometimes called for open ears and mind. The minuet was very fast. But in the Finale, I was troubled by what I felt as excessive ritardandi, followed by a sudden resumption of the earlier tempo. Do it once, but four time in exactly the same way and it becomes a cliché.

Much as this performance was revelatory, suggesting the sort of sound that Mozart might have known, I have in my mind performances by modern orchestras that manage to prolong and intensify the drama of this great finale, affording its marvellous contrapuntal and fugal structure a grandeur and power that may be a little inauthentic but which works more on the emotions than does the lighter fabric of a classical (rather than baroque, one might add) orchestra.

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