Symphony No.29 in A, K201
Vado, ma dove, K583
Bella mia fiamma, K528
Voi avete un cor fedele, K217 Schumann
Symphony No.1 in B flat (Spring)
Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Chamber Orchestra of Europe - 12th November
Monday, November 12, 2001 Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
It scarcely seems credible that almost a year has passed since the COE and Harnoncourt graced the RFH with illuminating Slavonic Dances (Dvoraks Op.46) and a miraculous Beethoven Pastoral. More credible, but not without question, is the close relationship that Bartoli and Harnoncourt have formed; then one remembers that she, like him, searches to find the truth behind the music she performs. Yet, for all the beauty of her voice, her flawless phrases, her brilliant agility, her bubbly personality and not that its important charisma, there is also her over-studied portrayals that leave no room for reactive listening. While the COE and Harnoncourt distilled the arias musical essence, Bartoli, however great, proved too practised in her perfection and reactions for this listener to reciprocate.
Theres no such barrier to engage with Harnoncourts probing work; his account of the symphonies was absorbing and revealing. Harnoncourts back to basics approach is without dogma, the music re-created in its original glory, decades of accretion removed, bar-by-bar aural revelations guaranteed. It shouldnt matter if were used to the most elephantine Mozart or thick-textured Schumann; an immediate response to Harnoncourts restorative abilities is the sense of rightness that pervades his conducting.
One can quibble over some intrusive accents in Mozarts miracle of lyrical grace, and certainly with trills beginning on the wrong note, the upper rather than the lower; yet moments of brusqueness were convincing in terms of classical formality and trills were rendered that way in Mozarts time. Harnoncourt, a galvanising presence, the COEs response exquisitely judged, is not pedantic his phrasal yielding demonstrates this; nor is the music in an emotional straitjacket the first movements development flared appropriately. Harnoncourt added a bassoon to the bass line to tart effect, he had no fear of intrusion forte violin accents slicing into the Cosi-like wafting of the Andante for example and cosseted the song-like trio, gave full value to the finales dying-fall refrain (shared between antiphonal violins) and made inevitable and logical the repeat of movements second halves and the Menuetto twice-round on its return instead of the traditional once.
Harnoncourt and tradition are not compatible he throws a line over received ideas back to composers times and expectations. Although the COE use modern strings, they are played for Harnoncourt without vibrato a soft glow tinged with antiquity. He chooses brass instruments with period care; in Schumann there was never a chance this section would over-blow or carouse. With crisp, hard 19th-century timpani and wind/brass details touched in with a water-colourists subtlety, Harnoncourts correlation of Schumanns deft scoring, his concern for textural transparency and his patient building to climaxes made for impressive listening in particular, the playful first movement made absolute sense at a speed that avoided rush. His distinction between staccato and legato was meticulous, his ability to underpin melodic fabric with an enveloping smoothness of string lines such as in the first movements development or the second trio as remarkable as his command of dissolving the sound-weave at will.
In limpid radiance and clarity of articulation, Harnoncourt conveyed far more fantasy and illustration than high-powered and saturated renditions of Schumann will ever do Harnoncourts allusion to Romantic sensibility innate. At times like this, Im inclined to think him a miracle-worker.