The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Fine Form

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Weber, Mozart, Mendelssohn:  Robert Levin (piano), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Charles Hazelwood. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. 29 September 2011 (RB)

Weber:  Overture to ‘Der Freischütz’
Mozart:  Piano Concerto No. 23 in A K488
Mendelssohn:  Symphony No. 3 in A minor Op 56 ‘Scottish’

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) were joined by Charles Hazelwood, who conducted the overture and symphony, and Robert Levin, who directed the Mozart concerto from the keyboard.  As usual both orchestra and soloist played on period instruments and this allowed them to achieve very clear and transparent textures in these very famous works.  Hazelwood and Levin gave a short talk prior to each piece to say something about the historical and cultural context, and to draw out key features of the piece and their comments were illuminating.

The overture to ‘Der Freischütz’ is one of Weber’s most frequently performed works and contains one of his most famous melodies.  The OAE made it sound immediate and fresh minted.  The wonderful horn entries over rocking strings were magical, and the strings generated visceral excitement.  The articulation and attention to detail was exceptionally good and Hazelwood and the OAE clearly seemed to enjoy the performance.

Robert Levin is a professor at Harvard and is a famous Mozart scholar who is renowned for his improvisation of cadenzas in classical period repertoire.  The opening allegro in Mozart’s ever-green A major concerto was taken at a brisk tempo with Levin playing during the orchestral tuttis.  Levin and the OAE achieved an excellent balance (no mean achievement when the soloist is playing on a forte piano) and the solo part was stylishly played with Levin adding in ad libitum ornamentation.  The F sharp minor slow movement always reminds me of Pamina’s great aria in The Magic Flute and this performance was no exception, having all of the expressive qualities that one could wish for.  Levin embroidered the solo part extensively but did so in a completely appropriate and cultivated way.  The exchanges with the woodwind in the central section were delightful and the coda was hauntingly beautiful.  The final allegro assai was full of joie de vivre with Levin and the OAE generating a real sense of unbridled happiness.  The phrasing and attention to detail were again exceptionally good.

Mendelssohn’s great A minor symphony was inspired by a visit he made to Scotland in 1829.  He composed the introduction to the symphony during a visit to the ruined chapel of Mary Stuart at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh.  The OAE’s rendition of this introduction had an immediacy and expressive intensity that was quite breathtaking, and which I think is unique to period orchestras.  The lilting melody in the ensuing allegro was beautifully shaped and the strings managed to achieve a searing intensity in the first movement passage work.  Hazelwood and the OAE gave a robust reading of the scherzo which I completely agreed with (this movement can sometimes come across as overly dainty) although the textures could have been a shade lighter in places.  The lyrical material in the adagio was refined and elegantly phrased without being mawkish or sentimental, while the funeral march interjections had a raw emotional punch.  The finale was full of rhythmic vitality and coursing energy while the horns lent the final coda a majestic quality.  Altogether this was an outstanding concert.  The OAE are playing again in October and November and I would encourage you go – I know I will!

 Robert Beattie