OAE Concert – 13th June – Simon Rattle conducts Mozart 39-41

Symphony No.39 in E flat, K543
Symphony No.40 in G minor, K550
Symphony No.41 in C, K551 (Jupiter)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 13 June, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

When all the supposition around them has been discounted – and programme-note writer Misha Donat is right to stress the performance orientation of their creative thinking – Mozart’s last three symphonies, composed in a sustained span during the summer of 1788, are an inspired and inspiring triptych: as complementary in form as they are contrasted in expression, factors enhanced by hearing them in the course of a single concert. Simon Rattle did this a decade ago in Birmingham, so hearing how his interpretations had developed, through the flexibly authentic medium of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, was an enticing prospect.

The outward similarity of form in these symphonies is far outweighed by the varying emphasis of the respective movements. Although each marked ’Menuetto: Allegretto’, the third movements are a diversity in themselves. That of K543, graceful yet spirited, is a summation of the form, with the trio ensuring a smooth continuity. Rattle was a little too keen to nudge the music along here, whereas he had the measure of the jagged dance rhythms of K550, the trio a necessary balm amid the agitation. K551 seems to glide across the minuet form, giving it an expansiveness that was slightly downplayed; though the quizzical mood of the trio was caught to perfection.

What used to be known as ’slow movements’ can now be anything but; conveying breadth without heaviness is no easy matter. The indelible melodic phrasing of K543 determines its interpretation, but making its second half a natural intensification of the first is not easy – Rattle’s expressive focus did not open out sufficiently. K550’s ’Andante’ can be a real endurance if its pathos is overplayed, but it emerged here as the highlight of the evening, the harmonic plangency that will erupt in the finale already threatening the surface calm. Some will quibble about the first-half repeat, though Rattle’s varied pointing of detail justified its inclusion. If K551 is the most elusive, almost stoical as it ventures into the minor, there was no doubting the welling-up of emotion as the music strives towards resolution in the reprise; here with a gravity that had one assessing the movement afresh.

First movements in these symphonies vary greatly in expressive density. Only K543 has a slow introduction, the most monumental in any of Mozart’s symphonies, which Rattle steered with a fine appreciation of the harmonic dissonance that threatens to wrench apart the Masonic grandeur. The main ’Allegro’ had nothing like the same conviction, its natural eloquence sounding more a fait accomplit than something to be attained against the ominous background of the opening pages. The ’Molto allegro’ of K550 was incisive yet never rushed, and Rattle caught the unsettling, provisional feel of the music – preparing but never confirming the tonal trajectory of the whole work. The repeat felt justified, if only so that the nervy motion in the violas could more clearly be heard second time round. The ’Allegro vivace’ of K551 had the right breadth but somehow lost impetus well before the reprise, as though the harmonic rhythm of the movement had lost focus rather than through a slowing of tempo as such – each section, including exposition repeat, more overbearing than before.

Each of the finales summed up the qualities of Rattle’s interpretations. That of K543, shorn of both first and – unforgivably – second-half repeats, was a decided non-conclusion, as if confirming that, in opening the concert, this symphony had to be interpretatively underplayed rather then emotionally understated. The agitation of K550, proportion blown asunder at the explosive opening of the development and the tragic outcome driven home with stark finality, was all of a piece with the preceding movements. Rattle wisely avoided the second-half repeat – such unremitting intensity can only be diluted with repetition. He rightly included both repeats of K551’s ’Molto allegro’, a movement of such rhythmic energy and contrapuntal intricacy that it needs musical time and space to build to its magisterial, but never grandiose, apotheosis. Articulation was generally sound – if the authentically-scaled orchestra was pushed to its dynamic and expressive limit, this at least recaptured something of the exhilaration all too easily lost in today’s streamlined performances.

Those familiar with the OAE’s playing-style will need no reminder of the characterful timbre of its woodwind and incisive cut of horns, not least in combination with the trumpets and drums of K551. Strings, violins divided left and right with basses stage-right, varied articulation imaginatively; any loss of tonal weight no doubt owing to the over-ample – though far from over-spacious! – Festival Hall acoustic. And here’s the rub: this was a concert ideal for the Queen Elizabeth Hall; given in the RFH because there were audience numbers to match, many of the OAE’s advantages were compromised ’in situ’ – worth thinking about for the future. For now, the experience of hearing Mozart’s final three symphonies in sequence remains an instructive and rewarding one.

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