Chamber Orchestra of Europe – 12th November

Symphony No.29 in A, K201
Vado, ma dove, K583
Bella mia fiamma, K528
Voi avete un cor fedele, K217
Symphony No.1 in B flat (’Spring’)

Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 12 November, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

It scarcely seems credible that almost a year has passed since the COE and Harnoncourt graced the RFH with illuminating Slavonic Dances (Dvorak’s 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 it’s 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.

There’s no such barrier to engage with Harnoncourt’s probing work; his account of the symphonies was absorbing and revealing. Harnoncourt’s ’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 shouldn’t matter if we’re used to the most elephantine Mozart or thick-textured Schumann; an immediate response to Harnoncourt’s restorative abilities is the sense of ’rightness’ that pervades his conducting.

One can quibble over some intrusive accents in Mozart’s 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 Mozart’s time. Harnoncourt, a galvanising presence, the COE’s response exquisitely judged, is not pedantic – his phrasal yielding demonstrates this; nor is the music in an emotional straitjacket – the first movement’s 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 finale’s 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-colourist’s subtlety, Harnoncourt’s correlation of Schumann’s 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 movement’s 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 – Harnoncourt’s allusion to Romantic sensibility innate. At times like this, I’m inclined to think him a miracle-worker.

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