Since taking up the artistic directorship of the Berlin Philharmonic in 2002, Simon Rattle has consistently maintained links with London through appearances with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The OAE has given Rattle an outlet for his interest in historically-informed performance, and the partnership has covered music as diverse as Rameau’s Les Boréades to Wagner’s Das Rheingold.
In Haydn’s ‘Tempora mutantur’ Symphony, its title extracted from a full phrase handwritten by the composer on the manuscript (“Tempora mutant, et nos in illis”, Times change, and us with them), Rattle mined a palette of colour quite distinct from the hues of his Berlin orchestra. Haydn’s swift shifts of dynamic and tone brought an incisive response from the players of the OAE, with Rattle characteristically keen to emphasise the moments of darker concentration amongst the lighter shades. The remaining movements were brilliantly characterised, particularly the thoughtfully subdued advance from and retreat into silence of the violins’ melodic music in the Andante, and the strutting weight of the Minuet.
Wearing fabulous frockcoats, Katia and Marielle Labèque took to a pair of fortepianos for Mozart, giving a crisp and buoyant performance of this impulsive score. We’re so used to the dynamic force of the modern concert grand that it was a surprise to hear the slight scale of the Labèques’ instruments and, appropriately, the sisters tended to retreat into pianissimo to suggest dynamic contrast rather than force greater volume. Rattle’s accompaniment was carefully calibrated to avoid outweighing the fortepianos’ sound, but the Labèques’ sparkling conversation was most appealing in the finale’s cadenza. The sisters returned to one instrument for a four-hand encore, an Allegretto by Johan Vanhal, which confirmed that it was indeed a Labèque sister adding a distracting vocal part to their performance.
Mozart’s Symphony 33 followed, the OAE again demonstrating its mastery of matters authentic. Restrained and warm phrasing made the slow movement a highlight, but it was Haydn’s evening, ultimately, and the vigour and invention of his Symphony 95 put a smile on the face. Rattle’s control of light and shade was again exemplary, the first movement alternating an intense solemnity with a bubbling momentum. The swaggering minor-key pomp of the Minuet contrasted wonderfully with cellist Pierre Doumenge’s effortless solo in the Trio to a light plucked accompaniment. Throughout this concert it was the stunning virtuosity of the OAE that impressed most and Rattle’s interpretations consistently made the most of the musicians’ talents without distracting from the freshness and invention of the music.