United Kingdom Smetana, Brahms and Dvořák: Viktoria Mullova (violin), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Adám Fischer (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 4.3.2015 (AS)
Smetana: The Bartered Bride – Overture
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77
Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, B178, ‘From the New World’
How good it was to have an overture to begin this concert: it seemed quite like old times. The Bartered Bride Overture was brilliantly played under Adám Fischer’s precise, highly charged direction, particularly by the OAE’s expanded string section, though the bubbling old woodwind instruments were also a delight.
How disappointing, then, that the orchestral opening of the Brahms concerto sounded rather flat and tonally meagre. Perhaps Viktoria Mullova’s entry would raise the temperature. But unfortunately it did not. Her playing was beautiful, but she sounded (and looked) rather emotionally uninvolved in the proceedings. And despite all of Fischer’s valiant attempts to increase the tension he was only rewarded by rather prosaic orchestral playing. Nor was the sound quite right for Brahms. It needs to glow with warmth in this concerto, but here the smallish band of original instruments could not generate sufficient power. At the outset of the slow movement the long oboe solo didn’t make much of an impression, and Mullova’s playing remained somewhat aloof. The finale was laboured and rhythmically stolid.
After this, and a break for the interval, the opportunity was now there for Fischer to show his true mettle and for the OAE to demonstrate its compatibility with late-Romantic music. Both conductor and orchestra succeeded triumphantly. As in the Smetana overture rhythms were now buoyant and there was energy and spirit in the playing – even a satisfyingly new tonal warmth emanated from the gut string instruments. The woodwind timbre was delicious and apparently “authentic” in that it was not far away from the rustic sound you can hear in old recordings made by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1930s and 1940s. The famous cor anglais solo in the Largo sounded appropriately plangent. The brass made firm, sharply defined statements. And finally, Fischer directed affectionately and authoritatively. His was a lovely, warm-hearted performance.
Only one thing spoiled the experience. Somehow a young man had penetrated the artists’ quarters and he emerged on to the stage and danced in front of the orchestra for what seemed more than a few seconds. It was not long before he was restrained and removed, and fortunately not only did he make no noise at all, but the device he was holding in his hand was a mobile phone and not anything more dangerous. For those few seconds Fischer kept a wary eye on him, but continued to conduct, and thanks to the professionalism of all the musicians the performance was only interrupted visually and not in any other sense. No doubt the Southbank management will instigate an enquiry into what happened, and make sure that such a security breach can never happen again.