Highly Accomplished and Intelligent Performances from Isabelle Faust and the OAE

19/04/2017

Haydn, C.P.E. Bach, Mozart: Isabelle Faust (violin), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Matthew Truscott (director), Royal Festival Hall, London, 18.4.2017. (CS)

Haydn – Symphony No.49 in F minor Hob.I:49 (La passione)
Mozart – Violin Concerto No.1 in B-flat major K.207
C.P.E. Bach – Symphony in G H.675, WQ.182/1
Mozart – Violin Concerto No.5 in A major K.219 (Turkish)

“You are not quite aware yourself of what an excellent violinist you are, when you gather up all your strength and play with self-confidence, verve, and fire,” Leopold Mozart wrote to his son.  Leopold was, of course, himself the author of an important contemporary instruction manual of violin technique, and the first official position that young Wolfgang held in Salzburg was that of Konzertmeister.

Mozart’s contribution to the violin repertory was significant: 33 sonatas for piano and violin, numerous movements for violin and orchestra, the superlative Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, and five violin concertos, the first and last of which Isabelle Faust chose to perform with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Royal Festival Hall.

It had been thought that all five concertos flowed from the teenage Mozart’s pen in extraordinarily quick succession during an eight-month period in 1775; now the consensus is that the first concerto actually dates from two years earlier, and it does stand apart from the subsequent quartet both in style and form, characterised by gallant charm rather than showy virtuosity.  Indeed, one might wonder whether Mozart’s concertos are natural territory for a violinist known for her compulsion to delve beneath the note and search for new routes through musical and musicological challenges.  But, Faust delighted in showing us that the easy grace and lyrical beauty of these concerti assimilates both an unassuming virtuosity and an emotional depth that hints at the master-dramatist that Mozart was to become.

Standing at the centre of the semi-circle of seated musicians – the 21 strings supplemented by two oboes and two horns – Faust’s sound emerged from the core of the ensemble sound.  As she turned and leant towards director Matthew Truscott and his players, the sense of close, concentrated listening and sharing was strong.  This was undoubtedly chamber music; different sections seemed to ‘take the lead’ as required and when the solo line soared and sparkled, Faust sustained a lightness of touch that ensured the fine-spun sound could slip easily back into the delicate ensemble fold.

A blithe lightness of spirit dominated the First Concerto, with a more weighty assertiveness reserved for the passages leading to the cadenzas of each movement.  The exhilarating passagework of the Allegro moderato was pristine, Faust’s bow seeming to fly with breezy nonchalance through the cascades and patterns, as delicate as the accompanists’ gentle repeating quavers.  The way in which the lower strings opened the Adagio, almost inviting the soloist in, was characteristic of the rapport sustained throughout the evening.  The passion of this movement was of the sincere and poignant, rather than exuberant, kind, and the swell of energy towards the cadenza was exciting.

In October 2016, Faust released a disc of all five Mozart concertos with Il Giardino Armonico on which she played cadenzas and lead-ins specially written by the forte-piano player Andreas Staier and I assume that it was these that we heard here.  In both concertos, the cadenza material was stylish, inventive and brought a fresh robustness to Faust’s tone, but one which was re-assimilated within the ensemble with sometimes surprising alacrity.  Typical was the way that, at the end of the technically demanding Presto, after some striking contrasts of register and dynamic, powerful solo pizzicatos propelled the OAE into the brief coda, which closed this final movement with a cheeky smile.

A noteworthy sensitivity to balance, phrasing and colour was sustained throughout the last of Mozart’s Concertos, the A major key of which introduced a glitter and brightness to the overall sound.  Mozart asks for the opening movement to be played Allegro aperto – an unusual tempo indication, literally, fast and ‘open’ – which here the airy elegance of the orchestral opening seemed perfectly to capture.  The middle strings trembled transparently while the rising violin line was crystalline of tone.  The OAE’s ability to distinguish, with effortless unanimity, between a mezzo piano, a piano and a pianissimo, was impressive and said much for Truscott’s unassuming but utterly authoritative leadership.

The Adagio is the largest-scale slow movement that Mozart composed for any of the five violin concertos, but here the tempo was fairly brisk and grace was favoured over introspection.  That’s not to say that Faust did not find the pathos inherent in Mozart’s elegance, and in the central section she strengthened her tone, creating a gravitas which was complemented by the music’s chromatic wanderings.

The reason for the concerto’s nickname becomes apparent in the Rondo: Tempo di minuetto when the amiable rondo theme is punctuated by ever more fanciful episodes, culminating in a parodic ‘Turkish’ outburst, which sees the soloist tumble down a scale and then leap athletically to a decorated rhetorical punch, and cellos and basses deliver percussive col legno snaps across the strings.  Characteristically, Faust and the OAE made light of the foot-stamping bravura, easily re-establishing the gentility of the minuet.

Mozart may have eschewed virtuosity for its own sake – “You know I am no lover of difficulties,” he wrote to his father.  But, this performance made Artur Schnabel’s oft-cited observation – “too easy for children and too difficult for adults”, he said of the piano sonatas – seem all too pertinent.  There are interpretative challenges in these concerti that, as Faust revealed, only the most technically accomplished and musically intelligent can recognise and address.

Musical intelligence was also in considerable supply in the two instrumental items offered by the OAE.  The minor key and nickname of Haydn’s Symphony No.49 might lead one to expect the dark hues and ambience of the composer’s Sturm und Drang period; however, the ‘passion’ here does not refer to the ardent or tragic kind, but to the Christian Passion, the nickname having derived from a single performance given in the northern German city of Schwerin in 1790; during Holy Week, secular music was banned so presumably the name was designed to suggest an association between the sober character of this music and the contemplation of Good Friday.

And, the symphony is predominantly sombre, with the major mode employed only for the trio of the Menuet.  The long Adagio with which the symphony commences casts grave shadows over the whole work.  This is not a ‘slow introduction’, so often favoured by Haydn, but the first movement of a four-movement ‘church sonata’ structure.  The OAE strings, standing, produced a wonderfully hushed evenness, occasionally troubled by the murmuring inner voices or coloured by subtle details from the wind.   After the inexorable unfolding of the Adagio, the suppressed feeling suddenly expanded and caught fire with the leaping octaves, rushing quavers and syncopated breathlessness of the opening of the Allegro di molto.  The interplay of interlocking motifs was expertly articulated, the textures clear and clean.  It was in ‘busy’ movements such as this that one could really appreciate Truscott’s expertise and ability to shape musical forms.  He is not an overly demonstrative player but there was no doubting who was ‘in charge’; this does not imply ‘dominance’, though, rather that Truscott clearly inspired trust and confidence in his players.  The Minuet e Trio was balletic in character and the Trio infused with a pleasing warmth.  Some fine horn playing from Phillip Eastop and Martin Lawrence added an edge of excitement to the Finale: Presto.

It was the least well-known work on the programme, however, which I thought drew the finest playing from the OAE: C.P.E. Bach’s Symphony in G of 1773.  The players seemed inspired by the audacious invention of this symphony, one of six ‘sinfonies for strings’ that Bach composed in Hamburg in 1773.  The exploratory harmonies of the Allegro di molto were exciting, the rapid figures perfectly co-ordinated, the swells and ebbs expertly judged and executed.  This was playing of rhetorical drama and zest.  The tuning of the unisons and octaves of the oddly asymmetrical theme of the Poco adagio, which followed with the barest of pauses, was flawless, and the Presto gigue danced with elegance and polish.

Claire Seymour

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