OAE/Levin – Beethoven Concertos (21 January)

Overture in D *
Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Symphony No.59 in A (Fire) *

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Robert Levin (fortepiano/director)
Elizabeth Wallfisch (director) *

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 21 January, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

“Altered Perspectives” might be the best description of this first instalment of the OAE’s four-concert cycle of Beethoven’s five numbered piano Concertos, offering as it did the prospect of original-instrument performances of the first and third concertos played on a restored Viennese Rosenberger piano of 1802 by the American pianist and musicologist, Robert Levin. And to do so with arguably the world’s finest period-instrument orchestra was luxury casting indeed.

In this imaginatively constructed programme these two supposedly “familiar” concerti were offset by two “unfamiliar” but fascinating works from the same period. The juxtaposition worked remarkably well.

The Bohemian composer Antonin Reicha was a contemporary of Beethoven, born in the same year and outliving him by nine. He was even a one-time colleague in the Bonn court orchestra. His Overture in D is a substantial and engaging piece – its “normal” introduction turning into a “far from normal” large-scale Allegro scherzando written throughout in a loping 5/8 time and replete with unexpected pauses. Under Elizabeth Wallfisch’s elegant bow it received the best possible advocacy, spirited and smiling. In fact, one of the great joys of OAE concerts is the feel-good factor, the sense that everyone in the orchestra is having a ball.

The main business was of course the two Beethoven concertos, which Levin directed, facing directly out towards the audience from behind the keyboard, the string band to his right and left, the wind and brass immediately behind him. Whilst visually arresting, this does not make for the tightest ensemble.

As expected, the orchestral sound in the concertos’ tuttis was lithe, tensile and abrasive, the balance between strings and wind much more equal than conventional performances, and also within the strings the bass line and inner parts were far more audible. When the fortepiano entered after the First Concerto’s forceful opening, the shock was tangible, so tiny did it sound, but almost immediately the benefits became apparent as violas and violins sang out against the soloist’s descending octaves in a way one rarely hears. Although a fortepiano does not have the sustaining power of its modern equivalent, it can – and in this instance did – produce a wide range of tone colour, for example shading the C major’s second subject, producing the most visceral descending octaves into the recapitulation and showing off the full range of possibilities in Levin’s (improvised?) huge cadenza. The slow movement again brought benefits of balance, but also in the clarity of Levin’s instrument when playing double-dotted rhythms or picking out bass notes. The Finale was simply a riot – I use the word advisedly – quirky to a point (partly the instrument’s mechanism one suspects) but full of dash, the cross-rhythms zinging out exuberantly.

In the Third Concerto, a more symphonic work, the lack of a real conductor was more evident but Levin’s actual playing just as spontaneous. Especially affecting was the slow movement, the timbre of his 1802 instrument blending to particular effect with the woody flute of Lisa Beznosiuk and the distinctive clarinet of Anthony Pay, whilst the fortepiano’s operatic cantilena was perfectly complemented by the light-toned strings. In the outer movements the climaxes, led by brass and timpani, packed a surprisingly formidable punch, whilst Levin’s theatrically distended cadenza in the finale almost succeeded in ensnaring Elizabeth Wallfisch and the orchestra into two early entries. As an encore Levin threw in Beethoven’s ’Rage over a lost penny’ Rondo.

To begin the second half, an all-too-rare chance to hear Haydn’s Fire Symphony in a beautifully turned performance led from the first desk, maybe a little too urbane for this forceful music, but graced by some fabulous high natural-horn playing from Roger Montgomery and Martin Lawrence, and elegant duetting from the oboes.

However, the true value of this concert was the rather good and historically-informed approximation of Beethoven’s concertos as they must have sounded at the time of their premieres. The message was clear: they sounded very, very different.

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