Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Iván Fischer
Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Friday 7 February 2020
Symphonies: no.39 in E flat major K543; no.40 in G minor K550; no.41 in C major K551 ‘Jupiter’ (all composed in 1788)
This concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 12 February. You can listen to it here
Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Few orchestras inspire their audience as consistently as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Tonight was no exception, presenting ‘Mozart’s Final Flourish’ – his three final symphonies, nos. 39-41, written unusually in a short space of time, without commission, in 1788. The three works represent Mozart’s mastery of the symphonic form, and as conductor Iván Fischer explained to us before the performances began, there is an argument for the three works being viewed as one.
Fischer structured the concert to support his point, the trinity performed in order but with the interval positioned between the second and third movements of the Symphony no.40. This did not prove as much of a hindrance as expected, for the ‘one giant stucture’ – seen as such by no less than Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Fischer’s teacher – was merely paused half way through. Fischer encouraged applause between movements, a tactic which fragmented the performance a little but added to the relaxed atmosphere and will have encouraged first-time attendees.
The performances were very fine indeed. Symphony no.39 in E flat major, no.543 in Köchel’s catalogue of Mozart compositions, does not always get the appreciation it deserves. This is a shame as it is a wonderfully affirmative work, packed full of good tunes that responded well to the orchestra’s lean sound and fresh phrasing. The slow movement Andante was really nicely characterised, its middle section appropriately stern, while the busy finale chattered excitedly, Fischer leading the conversation.
The Symphony no.40 in G minor came as something of a shock to audiences with its ‘Sturm und drang’ approach, in keeping with Haydn and other artistic movements of the day but clearly plumbing emotional depths for the composer. The first movement was tautly argued, relenting a little for the Andante which was perhaps too relaxed in tone. When we returned after the interval the Menuetto disappeared rather quickly, with Fischer’s brisk tempo and an absence of repeats, while the fourth movement brought more abstract qualities to the fore before its final flourish.
And so to the Symphony no.41 in C major, nicknamed the ‘Jupiter’ 40 years or so after its publication. What a remarkable achievement this is, its surface simplicity masking complex inner workings with the serenity of a swan. Fischer, who smiled throughout, revelled in another fine performance, typified by the extra spring given to the exuberant second theme of the first movement. The tender heart of the Andante cantabile was aided by a lovely muted string sound, while the floated delivery from the violins helped the deceptively straightforward themes in the Menuetto. All this was headed for the finale, however, and its masterful fugue. This conversation between parts is the closest thing to perfection in Mozart’s symphonic writing, and the OAE relished both their individual parts and the ensemble workings resulting from them, building enough kinetic energy to sweep us home.
This was a thought provoking and ultimately uplifting evening, and the ideal setting of the scene for anyone moving on to Beethoven next!
Further listening and viewing
A reminder that this concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 12 February. You can listen here
You can find out more about the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on their website, and you can get an introduction to them in a minute through the video below:
The orchestra appear not to have recorded Mozart’s last three symphonies, but their one-time guest conductor Frans Brüggen made these excellent live recordings with the Orchestra of the 18th Century. They sit relatively closely to the sound heard at this concert: