OAE/Norrington Levin

Don Giovanni, K527 – Overture
Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor, K491
Quintet in E flat for Piano and Wind Instruments, K452
Symphony No.38 in D, K504 (Prague)

Robert Levin (piano)

Katharina Spreckelsen (oboe), Jane Booth (clarinet), Andrew Watts (bassoon) & Andrew Clark (horn)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Roger Norrington

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 7 February, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Roger Norrington, without score, podium or baton, began this excellent concert with arresting hard-stick timpani and a distinctly chill wind as the overture to “Don Giovanni” made an immediate impression in its unsettled expression, the main body of the overture given more measured expression, with (superb-sounding and superbly played) timpani maybe too dominant (as they would also sometimes be in the Prague Symphony).

Sound and balance were also an issue, a mostly positive one, in the concerto, Robert Levin’s piano (or should that be fortepiano?) facing the audience, Levin himself sitting just in front of the woodwinds, Norrington taking a high chair and nestling in between first violins and cellos (remaining without score and baton). The pellucid and beguiling timbre of Levin’s unspecified instrument was a pertinent reminder that the soloist needn’t be a dominating presence as long as that somebody has the wherewithal to make an impression through skill and perspicacity. Levin brought much to the solo part, including many additions (as is authentic) to the published text and spun an impressive cadenza or two; whether literally improvised or not, Levin’s integrity and brilliance were apt. Although the instrument was inaudible when Levin joined in the tuttis, the balance between piano and woodwinds was a constant and revealing delight, and if it was difficult to sometimes know who was directing this performance (Levin’s interaction with the players borders on eclipsing all around him), this rendition had authoritative conviction, the unresolved tragic conclusion made all the more unnerving.

The Piano and Wind Quintet passed by amiably, the bluff humour of the first movement nicely pointed and the piano’s delicacy and quickness being a distinct pleasure. Oboist Anthony Robson was a last-minute indisposition and so Katharina Spreckelsen became a phone-call replacement for both this solo spot and for orchestral duties; the air of extemporisation was appropriate for all five musicians had their instruments and their musicianship in gear.

The concert’s highlight, though, was the magnificent account of the great Prague Symphony, one with surprises. One such was Norrington’s tempos, which were broad, ideal for the majesty of the music; the slow introduction had a Klemperer-like gravitas and the Allegro was equally unhurried, to advantage. And, just occasionally, the strings seemed to be using vibrato (fingers were shaking!), the OAE sounding just that little bit more ‘modern’ at times, which suited the innovation of the music. The slow movement had an equable flow, rather lullaby-like, and the finale was again given time, the prescribed Presto rejected for a truculent allegro. Quite why Norrington omitted the first repeat but took the second one here is baffling (all repeats had been in place hitherto) and he seemed to be making some point when the development crashed in again and he turned to the audience to signify its second appearance.

Norrington, once again without the trappings of score, podium and baton – but vividly gesticulating, not least when gleefully sign-posting material shared by antiphonal violins – looked suitably shell-shocked after the first movement; understandably for it is one of Mozart’s greatest achievements and Norrington and the OAE had produced something unexpected if wholly compelling in its grand dimensions. No sooner had he been presented with a bouquet than Sir Roger walked straight to Katharina Spreckelsen and passed it to her.

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