OAE/Isabelle Faust, Steven Isserlis & Robert Levin – Haydn, Mozart & Beethoven: Look! No Conductor!

Symphony No.104 in D (London)
Violin Concerto in G, K216
Concerto for Piano, Violin and Cello in C, Op.56

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Steven Isserlis (cello & director)
Isabelle Faust (violin & director)
Robert Levin (fortepiano & director)

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 3 May, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

The programme-note boasted that this Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment concert featured three of the biggest names in musical history – Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – yet it was also surely the involvement of three star soloists that ensured a packed Queen Elizabeth Hall. “Look! No Conductor!” exclaimed the tag-line, pointing to the fact that the soloists took turns to direct.

Steven Isserlis. Photograph: Tom MillerFirst up was charismatic cellist Steven Isserlis with Haydn’s final symphony. It is well documented that Haydn directed performances of his symphonies in London from the fortepiano – an authentic touch often eschewed even by period-instrument bands today presumably on account of the expense of hiring an instrument. But it was perverse for there to be a fortepiano standing idle and a pianist in the dressing room, while the performance was directed in bizarre fashion: Isserlis, sat on a podium centre-stage with his back to the audience – in exactly a conductor’s usual position – occasionally waving his bow in the air like a baton, and pointlessly doubling the orchestral cello line. However, the performance was impressive on textural clarity, especially in the delineation of the finale’s folk-inspired theme – but, despite the OAE’s trademark crispness and ebullience, there was little dramatic tension or drive in the outer movements. The Andante flowed gracefully, though, with vibrant tempestuous eruptions, and the finale climaxed in rousing style thanks to the musicians’ splendid energy.

Isabelle Faust. Photograph: Felix BroedeThe performance of Mozart’s G major Violin Concerto was an unequivocal success. Isabelle Faust’s singing tone gave the solo line a smilingly radiant sheen, and she proved herself an inspiring and instinctively Mozartean director. Never flashy or overbearing, Faust’s marvellous élan was joyous. A natural, silken fluidity ensured the central Adagio had heart-melting charm, and the capricious finale was imbued with a wonderful lilt.

For anyone who regards Beethoven’s Triple Concerto as an unloved half-sibling of the piano concertos, respected for its intimacy and lyricism but thought lacking in dramatic excitement, this vivid account will have been a revelation. Nominally directed by Robert Levin, the performance bristled with stirring passion framing the magnetic synchronicity and honeyed tones of Faust and Isserlis. This double-act was utterly compelling, but the keyboard was an unequal partner. Due to his recessed position, Levin was often excluded from the glowing glances exchanged between Faust and Isserlis, his fortepiano frequently inaudible, only coming into its own in the ominous percussive growling towards the end of the first movement. This crucial reservation apart, it was a terrific performance, both beautiful and thrilling, and left in no doubt that this is a great work.

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