OAE/Hazlewood – Der Freischütz & Scottish Symphony … Robert Levin plays Mozart

Der Freischütz – Overture
Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K488
Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.56 (Scottish)

Robert Levin (fortepiano/director)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Charles Hazlewood [Weber & Mendelssohn]

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 29 September, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Charles Hazlewood. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouThere is now a few decades’ worth of recordings of Mozart piano concertos with the solo part played on the kind instrument that the composer himself would have known – but opportunities to experience it in the concert hall are still comparatively rare. So experienced fortepiano exponent Robert Levin’s appearance with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was very welcome – especially as the concerto he chose is one of Mozart’s finest and best-loved. As most of us are used to hearing these concertos on grand pianos with modern-instrument orchestras, several major adjustments were required to appreciate this performance. For a start, the layout on the platform: modern grand pianos dominate, the soloist sitting side-on to the audience in front of the orchestra. Levin sat facing the audience, the relatively dainty frame of his lid-less instrument ensconced within the body of the orchestra – all the better to direct from (as Mozart himself did) and to greater enable chamber-like interaction with fellow musicians. Secondly, the sound: the delicate piano tone, though initially harder to hear, is a fully integrated part of the texture, never sticking out unduly. Titanic battles between orchestra and soloists are the stuff of Brahms and Rachmaninov; Levin and the OAE were able to do full justice to Mozart’s far more collegiate manner.

Another surprise may have been the free ornamentation. Following apparent common practice of the time, Levin copiously embellished Mozart’s solo line with improvisations of his own – often impressively virtuosic, but always dexterously rendered, tasteful and plausibly Mozartean. In a brave move, he even performed his own first-movement cadenza: eschewing the composer’s own written-out one deprived a more sophisticated exploration of the thematic material, but the performance gained from edge-of-seat excitement, stepping outside the familiar. Decorations in the profoundly poignant Adagio were occasionally over-busy, but never ruinously so; the buoyant performance of this remarkable movement was a world-away from the upholstered hand-wringing of many modern-instrument accounts, but no less moving. The sunny outer movements were compellingly lively, the ebullient finale particularly breathtaking. It was impossible not to wonder what Alfred Brendel made of it: the supreme Mozart interpreter was sat in the audience. Although his own performing style was very different (but equally ‘authentic’ to the music in its own way), I’m sure Brendel would have appreciated Levin’s fine Mozartean fidelity.

In a pleasingly symmetrical programme, the Mozart was surrounded by two complementary romantic orchestral works: the darkly brooding Overture to Weber’s Der Freischütz and Mendelssohn’s life-affirming ‘Scottish’ Symphony. Conducted by Charles Hazlewood, the well-paced performances were strong on exhilaration and vibrancy, well characterised with vivid and often pungent textures. A few disconcerting tuning issues aside (no doubt on account of the unseasonably humid weather) there was some terrific playing, notably from the superb natural horns. But, for good or for bad, this is an orchestra that wears its heart on its sleeve: it’s obvious when it is enthused and inspired by the looks of pure joy on the players’ faces. There were few smiles here, however, which is indicative of the lack of really penetrative insights in the direction. Nonetheless, it was impossible not to enjoy such wonderful music in such committed and engaging performances.

Each piece was prefaced by spoken introductions: Levin on Mozart, Hazlewood on Weber and Mendelssohn. Although pertinent and reasonably lively, it is questionable whether they were really necessary – it’s unlikely that evening-concert audiences really want a lecture before the music. They bogged down what would otherwise have been a thoroughly delightful evening.

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