OAE @ QEH – Mozart – Roger Norrington conducts Symphonies 33 & 36, Roger Montgomery plays Horn Concertos 1 & 4

Symphony No.33 in B-flat, K319
Horn Concerto No.4 in E-flat, K495
Horn Concerto No.1 in D, K412
Symphony No.36 in C, K425 (Linz)

Roger Montgomery (horn)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Roger Norrington

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: 11 April, 2018
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Sir Roger NorringtonPhotograph: © Manfred EsserThe Queen Elizabeth Hall ideally accommodates the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and enhances the excellent quality of the strings, justifying Roger Norrington’s conviction that freedom of vibrato is an essential part of ‘authentic’ performance. It was surprising though that the players were set on a flat platform rather than being raked – after all we have reports of Haydn performing his music with trumpets and drums set high at the rear of the ensemble. In fact Norrington’s layout did not convince: no complaint about violins being divided either side of the conductor – this is essential – but to have oboes and bassoons standing on the far-left behind first violins facing across the orchestra meant that their timbres did not fully reach the audience. Horns stood on the far right, behind seconds alongside the timpani.

Norrington set out to create a performance-style equivalent to that of Mozart’s time – and said so in a brief speech. Matters of balance, tempo and general sound were thoroughly attended to, demonstrating the joyful nature of Symphony 33 and the grandeur of the ‘Linz’. This pairing of these two works reminded me of Eugen Jochum’s superb recording of them from as long ago as 1956 when with a ‘modern’ orchestra the essence of Mozart was also revealed. There was a difference however: Jochum understood the symphonic nature of the music adopting ideally judged juxtaposition of speeds and effective subtleties such as bringing in the Finales directly after the Minuets. With Norrington we were given two groups, each comprising four pieces of music. His cheerfulness in the opening movement of 33 was delightful, the slow movement coolly elegant, the unusually slow tempo of the Minuet worked ideally, including the reduction to one stringed instrument to a part in the Trio. In the immensely rapid final movement the element of the dance was strongly stressed. This may seem an exceptional performance and, apart from some surprisingly troublesome moments encountered by the horns in movements two and four, this was so but alas there was loud, infuriating clapping following the first three movements; worse that it was positively encouraged by the conductor.

Roger Montgomery then gave an eloquent account of K495 – the long melodic lines sensitively phrased, the flowing ease of his playing remarkable, and the jollity of the Finale ideally conveyed. It was possible to forget the considerable technical difficulties and it was interesting to distinguish the different nature of the stopped and unstopped notes on the valve-less horn. There was a moment in the central ‘Romanze’ when a sequence of stopped notes gave a distant and atmospheric effect. K412 has a complicated history. Composition commenced in the mid-1780s and the opening Allegro was not completed until 1791. The Finale has a more or less complete solo line with orchestration not really definable. It is usual to perform Süssmayr’s completion but this incorporates additions by him and his scoring does not correspond with that of the first movement. There are more reliable completions, notably an excellent one by John Humphries which is recorded by Anthony Halstead (with whom Roger Montgomery studied). In this OAE concert a new reconstruction of the movement by Stephen Roberts was used – so stylish that it makes a perfect match for the Allegro. Roberts even dares to include the occasional Mozart-like witticism, such as the brief light-hearted string echoes of the horn’s phrases near the close. Montgomery was immaculate throughout.

Intonation of the OAE horns was better in the ‘Linz’ Symphony. Crooked safely in C-basso, they blended very well with the trumpets giving this more fully-scored work a convincing feel. The first movement was particularly grand and again accent and firmness of rhythm were admirable elements. For the sake of symmetry it might have been wiser to omit the long second repeat in the flowing Poco adagio but again the choice of a deliberate tempo for the Minuet made sense. Mark Baigent’s sensitive oboe solo in the Trio was accompanied only by solo strings on each repeat. The Finale went very quickly and with much fieriness. Ideally it should have swept in soonest following the Minuet but there was much delay because of the prevalent between-movement clapping. I found myself saying “oh get on with it”. When Norrington did so it was superb and the flying string passages at the end of each section were brilliant.

The bright, optimistic Finale to Mozart’s ‘Posthorn’ Serenade (K320) made an ideal encore; it was performed at huge pace and with much power. The OAE in full cry makes a very exciting sound.

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