The Italian Girl in Algiers Overture
String Sonata No.1 in G
Sinfonia in D minor, Op.12/4 (La casa del diavolo)
Violin Concerto in D, Op.61
Viktoria Mullova (violin)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Reviewed by: Edward Clark
Reviewed: 24 May, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
While Viktoria Mullova, one of today’s great violinists, needs no introduction to London audiences, the conductor Giovanni Antonini is, perhaps, less well known to British concertgoers. His career has been largely in Europe where he has conducted a myriad of orchestras ranging from the Berlin Philharmonic to various original-instrument ensembles. He certainly aims high in his aspirations – both with intelligent concert-planning and in deciding with whom to perform. Hence this concert included music both familiar and unfamiliar and produced results of the highest quality.
Rossini may be a famous and often-played composer but we rarely hear the product of the 12-year-old prodigy in the form of one of his miraculous sonate a quattro, stylishly suave and with wonderful melodies. Such music deserves the best possible playing and Antonini did not disappoint, nurturing his players to an inspired level. He began with the more mature (!) overture to “The Italian Girl in Algiers” in a light-footed, deft performance that had both character and wit. The players evidently enjoyed his conducting manner, baton-less and with lots of two-handed encouragement.
The real rarity came with the Boccherini symphony. Boccherini is known today, if at all, for his string quintets but he was an all-round musician, both performer and composer. This middle-period symphony has several unusual features. He divides the cello and viola parts producing a wider range of sound than normal from a classical orchestra, and reintroduces the slow introduction to also open the finale, in which the middle section is based on music from Gluck’s ballet Don Juan. Gluck had encouraged Boccherini and this symphony is dedicated to him. Boccherini’s work is full of demonic energy (as befits the title), very much in the manner of C P E Bach’s symphonies; and if Haydn remains the composer of symphonies, we are the poorer for not hearing the countless examples of the genre from this time. Certainly this Boccherini work is full of imaginative force and eloquence.
If Boccherini is something of an obscure figure, Beethoven, of course, is anything but. The OAE let us hear Beethoven in a way his own audiences might have experienced. But the sound is only the start. He remains such a giant that the qualities of the performers are very much judged against the qualities of the music. Viktoria Mullova is one of the very few virtuosos who play this repertoire on gut strings. Her manner also is authentic in the adopting of swift tempos throughout and is therefore a refreshing corrective to the many performances today that are often leaden-footed and lacking in energy. This is, after all, a classical concerto and not a romantic wallow. Mullova has the delightful habit of playing along in the orchestral tuttis, warming up as it were and seemingly joining in the spirit of the performance from the start. Her choice of cadenzas (including quite a long one in the finale) was not informed to the audience, but she played them with refinement and bravado.
All’s well and good so far. Playing Beethoven with fast tempos is a favourite occupation of original instrument-ensembles – but the music requires more than this. The concerto is a supreme example of the need to balance a forward momentum with an inward capacity for meditation. Mullova does not quite capture this latter quality, which is a huge omission in this of all works. Just occasionally, as in the middle of the slow movement, did her playing touch the heart in its simplicity of utterance. In many ways Mullova blows the cobwebs away and is certainly never dull. Only the dimension of an inward emotional response to the music seems missing and that, in Beethoven, is quite important to say the least.