In concert – Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Iván Fischer: Mozart’s Final Flourish

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Iván Fischer

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Friday 7 February 2020

Mozart
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:

Wigmore Mondays – Jerusalem Quartet play Haydn & Bartók

Jerusalem Quartet [Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler (violins), Ori Kam (viola), Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)]

Wigmore Hall, Monday 20 January 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood
Photo of Jerusalem Quartet Felix Broede

The subtitle for this concert on the BBC Sounds website is ‘Quartet Masters’ – which is spot on when you consider the contributions both Haydn and Bartók made to this intimate form of chamber music. The string quartet – two violins, viola and cello – has presented composers with both challenge and inspiration over its 250-year existence, and even as I type this there is no sign of the form dying out.

A big part of the credit should go to Haydn, whose quartets are often used at the beginning of a program such as this. Sometimes that means the consistent quality of his work is overlooked, but there was no doubt of that happening in this performance from the Jerusalem Quartet.

Theirs was a red blooded performance, with a glossy texture to the luxurious string sound, aided by plenty of vibrato on the string. Such an approach would not have worked in the composer’s earlier quartets, but was more appropriate here for one of the six published in 1799 as the composer’s Op.76, his most mature statements yet as a quartet composer.

The ‘Fifths’ is so named because of the melodic interval Haydn uses between the two notes at the very start (2:10 on the BBC Sounds link) This motif becomes an integral part of the quartet, and as the first movement progresses it can be frequently heard. The Jerusalem Quartet’s bold performance gains more charm in the second movement (9:25), a light and relatively gentle dance. Alexander Pavlovsky’s intonation went a little awry here but not for long.

In the third movement, a darkly coloured Minuet (15:18), the quartet impress greatly, divided in two as the two violins’ melody is shadowed by the grainy tones of viola player Ori Kam and cellist Kyril Zlotnikov in impressive unison. The clouds part for a central Trio section with a rustic feel (16:44) before the obdurate theme returns (18:16) The fourth movement, initially quite furtive (19:10), blossoms into an affirmative finish.

Bartók had already confirmed his outright mastery of the string quartet form by the time he reached his Third Quartet of 1927, and the Fourth, completed a year later, achieves if anything a greater level of innovation in sound, together with strong melodic content and the use of connecting ideas between the five movements.

Bartók was obsessed with symmetrical forms, and the dimensions of the Fourth feel wholly right. Its five movements have two intensely concentrated pieces at their outer edge. Movements two and four are Scherzos – which implies they should be witty but the second is ghostly and the fourth otherworldly. The third movement is one of the composer’s classic evocations of the night, with pictorial references to insects and birds as well as dislocated elements of Hungarian folk music.

This performance was right on the money. From the start of the first movement (26:27) the tension is palpable, with a driven approach emphasising Bartók’s dissonant writing but also his melodic invention. The resolution in a pure C major is all the more telling because of it. The second movement (33:10) is marked to be played with all four players using mutes (‘con sordino’) and the ghostly entrails that result chill to the bone – in this case even on a cold January day. The four players shade their contributions exquisitely, preparing us for the central third movement (36:22), a great example of Bartók’s ‘night music’.

The emotional centre of the quartet, this is where time almost stops, and the Jerusalem Quartet captured this feeling immediately with their long, held chords and the songful lines from Kyril Zlotnikov’s cello and Alexander Pavlovsky’s violin. These held a profile close to folk melodies, the other three instruments standing watchfully by.

The fourth movement (42:50) broke us out of these nocturnal dreams, using pizzicato only (each of the four instruments required to pluck rather than use the bow) The folk-like ‘snaps’ against the board of the instrument were very effective, especially on the cello, but so was the thrumming of the violins and viola, which had an enchanting quality.

Finally the fifth movement (46:20) brings a lasting resolution, though it starts with great cut and thrust, using music of dissonance. Later a light-hearted diversion into more folk-based material breaks out, after which we head for a wholly convincing ending, summing up the whole performance perfectly.

A very fine concert, this, which was capped by an encore of the third movement (Minuet) from Mozart’s String Quartet in D minor K421 (54:24). Not only did this piece share the same key of the ‘Fifths’ quartet, it is one of a set of six quartets dedicated to Haydn, so brought the concert full circle with music of both grit and charm, rather like that of its dedicatee.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Haydn String Quartet in D minor Op.76/5 ‘Fifths’ (1797-8) (2:10)
Bartók String Quartet no.4 (1928) (26:27)

Further listening & viewing

You can watch the Jerusalem Quartet play Bartók’s String Quartet no.4 in a live concert here:

The Jerusalem Quartet have recorded both the works played in this concert, which can be heard on the playlist link below:

Bartók’s cycle of six string quartets is one of his very greatest achievements, and you can track the development of his style by listening through chronologically. The later quartets in particular give the most reward to repeated listening, for even 100 or so years on these works are not easy to grasp straight away! The cycle from the Emerson String Quartet remains one of their best recordings:

Haydn is the father of the string quartet, and his Op.76 set – again six quartets – represents the pinnacle of his compositions for the relatively new sound world of two violins, viola and cello. These are good natured works but have considerable depth too, as this recording by the Hungarian Takács String Quartet proves:

Mozart’s six quartets dedicate to Haydn are among his finest chamber works. This recording from the Hagen Quartett includes a particularly fine account of the D minor work from which the Jerusalem Quartet took their encore:

Wigmore Mondays – Alexander Melnikov: Early piano music by Clementi, Haydn & Mozart

Alexander Melnikov (fortepiano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 13 January 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Something of a history lesson from the versatile pianist Alexander Melnikov, who is capable of moving between modern piano music on a concert grand and 19th century music on the instrument for which it was written, the fortepiano. Essentially the instrument is a forerunner of the grand version we are used to nowadays, but it allows us to see the join between the harpsichord – the go-to keyboard of much of the 18th century – and the bigger and more modern instruments the likes of Beethoven began to write for. Here Melnikov played an instrument by Paul McNulty after Walter & Sohn from an original of 1805. Alexander Skeaping deserves credit as the tuner and supplier.

Melnikov’s program was brilliantly conceived, including music by Mozart and Haydn but linking them through one of the leading pianists and composers of the day, Muzio Clementi. Beethoven was one of his greatest advocates and often played his sonatas, while Clementi promoted his fellow-composer in London, where he arrived in the early 1770s. At this point the English capital was regarded as the centre for keyboard innovations, and in the music for this concert – superbly played and interpreted by Melnikov – you can feel the sense of freedom and exploration as the music looks outwards and forwards towards Beethoven.

The pianist begins with a musical impression of Haydn by Clementi, a brief Prelude from his Musical Characteristics album written as a guide for to give performers an idea of the style of other composers. This short number (from 3:04 on the broadcast link) starts with a broad C major chord, helping us get used to the piano sound. The mood is free and expansive, with a busy left hand. The pianist adds a short improvised section, where it proves difficult to spot the joins, but this serves to lead us straight to a Haydn work, the Piano Sonata in C sharp minor HXVI:36 (4:53).

This was a very rare key for Haydn to use – and rare for piano music, with Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata the next excursion some 20 years later. Melnikov’s performance captures the exploratory air of the piece, beginning with quite a stern statement but then playfully holding back with some of the clipped right hand notes to emphasise the composer’s wit. Melnikov’s affinity for the music is clear, with some beautifully played melodies. The piano sound is lovely, with none of the tinny textures often associated with the earlier instruments.

The second movement is a Scherzando (14:26), Melnikov playing a graceful dance with a really satisfying sense of ebb and flow. The third movement (18:21) is the slowest, a slow and solemn Menuetto moving to a thoughtful and serene final section (20:14) where Haydn moves to the major key. The playing here, using the ‘damper’ pedal, is really lovely.

The next pair of works begin with Clementi’s second ‘impression’ of Mozart (24:17), where a great deal of technical control is required! Me The two composers famously sparred in an improvisation session in Vienna in 1781, so knew a lot about each other – but from the reports did not perhaps see eye to eye.

Clementi’s tribute is keenly felt however, before Mozart‘s own exploratory Fantasia (25:55) receives a carefully thought yet natural performance. Though a short piece, this unfinished work varies greatly in mood and tempo, with quick cascades from on high contrasting with dark left-hand thoughts, before a sunnier closing section to sweep away the clouds. Melnikov gives the music plenty of room, sometimes exaggerating the pauses but always to the benefit of the music.

The concert finished with one of Clementi’s own sonatas, the substantial Piano Sonata in G minor published in 1795. Before it we heard another Prelude from the Musical Characteristics, this time a portrait of himself with a tumbling figure and some highly chromatic music (32:55). The Sonata itself begins at 34:27 with a stern introduction of two-part writing, but that soon cuts to a busy and bright first movement proper. There are a number of abrupt mood swings in this movement, anticipating Beethoven’s way of changing quickly between thoughts, and Clementi also employs some daring harmonies for the time. Melnikov responds brilliantly to these, again his performance given as though performing a characterised stage work, with a stormy closing section.

The second movement (42:40) is marked Un poco adagio (loosely translated as ‘a little bit slow’) and is subtly charming, like a slower dance, before the third movement (48:38), marked Molto allegro (quick and lively), actually hangs back a bit in this performance before going full throttle to a thrilling finish. Again Melnikov’s right hand contours are brilliantly realised.

This was a really enjoyable concert, and great to see the importance of Clementi’s role properly realised. He was one of the true pioneers of early piano music, and without his part it is unlikely Mozart or especially Beethoven would have made their own mark.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Clementi Musical Characteristics Op.19: Preludio II alla Haydn in C major (publ.1787)
Haydn Piano Sonata in C sharp minor HXVI:36 (publ.1780)
Clementi Musical Characteristics Op.19: Prelude I alla Mozart in A major (publ.1787)
Mozart Fantasia in D minor K397 (?1782)
Clementi Musical Characteristics Op.19: Prelude I alla Clementi (publ.1787)
Piano Sonata in G minor Op.34/2 (publ.1795)

Further listening

Alexander Melnikov has not yet recorded any of the music in this concert, but the playlist below includes recorded versions on the fortepiano wherever possible.

Thirty years ago it would have been unthinkable to consider we would now have a huge resource of recordings made on the fortepiano. This is thankful in part to early protagonists such as Melvyn Tan, but one pianist to have recorded a vast amount of this repertoire is Ronald Brautigam. His recordings of Beethoven are rewarding, but in Haydn he sparkles – such as in this disc of five sonatas, including the one heard in this concert:

Melnikov’s own discography on more historical instruments is in its relatively early stages, but this disc of piano music through the ages from Schubert to Stravinsky is well worth hearing:

Finally from this time comes a thrilling cycle of Beethoven sonatas for piano and violin – pioneering music which Arcana will explore in greater detail as part of 2020 Beethoven. This version with Isabelle Faust is one of the very best:

Live review – CBSO / Riccardo Minasi: Haydn & Mozart

Oliver Janes (clarinet), Nikolaj Henriques (bassoon), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Riccardo Minasi (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 27 November 2019

Haydn Symphony no.88 in G major (1787)
Richard Strauss Duet-Concertino (1946)
Beethoven Coriolan Overture (1806)
Mozart Symphony no.39 in E flat major K543 (1788)

Written by Ben Hogwood

What a refreshing concert for a dank November evening. This was a slightly stripped back version of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, with their guest conductor Riccardo Minasi overseeing energetic accounts of Haydn and Mozart, a high octane Beethoven overture and a youthful take on the music of an elderly Richard Strauss.

The Haydn first, in the form of a strongly characterised account of his Symphony no.88, premiered in Paris in 1787. We still take Haydn’s astonishing output of 104 published symphonies for granted, for while they make effective concert openers they are full of invention, wit, and – especially in this case – drama.

After a poised first movement, Minasi lovingly shaping the phrases with tasteful rubato, the second movement Largo was laid bare as a strongly emotive utterance with dark twists and turns, interventions from brass and timpani sounding powerful warning notes. By contrast the Minuet was a light hearted dance, its trio section employing bagpipe-like drone effects that anticipate the Brahms Serenades. Minasi and the players clearly love this music, and their effervescence carried over into the finale, the conductor dancing on the podium as upper and lower strings egged each other on.

Richard Strauss was looking intently at the Classical period when he wrote his penultimate orchestral work at the age of 83. The Duett-Concertino is an unusual piece, bringing forward clarinet and bassoon soloists to shine in front of a decorative chamber orchestra. This is recognisably late music in its assured and economical treatment of form, and in some unexpectedly spicy harmonic twists, but the soloists captured its ‘Indian summer’ profile.

Oliver Janes and Nikolaj Henriques were superb, plucked from the orchestra and fully enjoying their moment in the spotlight in front of their colleagues, who responded with rustic string accompaniment and beautifully rendered harp (Katherine Thomas). Janes’ clarinet tone was delightful, with Henriques’ bassoon cajoling and prompting in response. Both came into their own with some dazzling acrobatics in the finale. The light hearted approach spilled over into a brilliantly designed encore, a selection of Mozart themes arranged for the two solo instruments to often comic effect.

The second half began with high theatre, an account of Beethoven‘s Coriolan overture that crackled with atmosphere and descriptive content. The opening chords bore the effect of powerful slamming doors, such was the crisp ensemble, and as the overture gradually opened up so did a vivid response to Heinrich von Collin’s tale. As the story unfolded there was no doubt on its tragic ending, and here Minasi’s management of the quiet string dynamics looked forward to equivalent drama in the first movement of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony.

Even in the context of this concert the best was saved for last in an account of Mozart‘s Symphony no.39 that positively fizzed with good spirits. When he composed the piece in 1788 Mozart was writing without commission, a relative rarity for him, and this was the first of three symphonic works that were to redefine the form, effectively preparing the way for Beethoven and Schubert.

The atmosphere crackled in a fulsome introduction to the first movement, which took on a waltz-like form, Minasi’s prowess as an opera conductor clear for all to see through his dramatic instincts and more tasteful rubato. The slow movement was perfectly judged, initially and deceptively straightforward but with stern interventions from the woodwind. These highlighted the lyricism of the main subject, once again beautifully phrased. A warmly coloured Minuet followed before the finale sprang out of the traps, violins easily handling the considerable demands placed on them in rushing scales and rapid string crossing. Minasi was if anything even more energetic than he had been at the start of the concert, prompting the wonderful syncopations and interplay of Mozart’s inspiration which were brought right to the front.

So good was this concert it was a shame when we entered the closing bars of the symphony, but we did so with great positivity, Mozart – and Minasi – inspiring us through their wonderful craft.

Further listening

You can listen to the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below, made up of some leading recordings of the works played.

On record – Clare Hammond, Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Nicholas McGegan: Mysliveček: Complete Music for Keyboard (BIS)

Clare Hammond (piano), Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Nicholas McGegan

Josef Mysliveček (1737-1781)
Keyboard Concerto no.1 in B flat major (late 1770s)
Six Easy Divertimenti for Harpsichord or Piano-forte (1777)
Keyboard Concerto no.2 in F major (late 1770s)
Six Easy Lessons for the Harpsichord: Sonatas 1-6 (1780)

BIS BIS-2393 [74’22”]

Producer and Engineer Thore Brinkmann

Recorded March 2018 at the Örebro Concert Hall, Sweden

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Not many composers could claim to have influenced one of the greatest composers to have lived, but Il Boemo (The Bohemian) could do just that. Josef Mysliveček, to whom the nickname was applied, was a Czech composer of rare standing and a mentor to Mozart in the 1770s. He had a life of eyebrow-raising but ultimately tragic events, culminating with his death in great poverty in Rome in 1781, having nearly lost his nose a couple of years earlier to a botched operation.

Clare Hammond’s interview for this site puts more musical detail onto his fascinating tale. More importantly this disc for BIS serves notice of Mysliveček’s standing as an important musical figure and prodigiously talented composer. If you like Mozart, his music is a natural but essential step for further exploration.

What’s the music like?

Really enjoyable. The Piano Concerto no.1, where Hammond is joined by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Nicholas McGegan, has a sparky personality, with plenty of vigour in its fast outer movements and elegance in the softly voiced central slow movement. There is an economy of thought, too – it finishes quickly with the minimum of fuss.

Clare Hammond clearly loves this music, and she plays with poise but also enjoys the instinctive nature of Mysliveček’s writing. The solo works are notable for their compressed construction, never threatening to outstay their welcome and on occasion producing unexpectedly dark undercurrents.

She is alive to these and handles the technical challenges really well. The Six Easy Divertimenti sound anything but unless they are in her hands! She makes the most of their tendencies to surprise, as in the mysterious pauses on some pretty exotic chords in the fifth piece.

The Piano Concerto no.2 has some notable syncopations in its first movement, as well as some adventurous harmonic diversions, before slipping into the minor key for a profound slow movement. Some of the music is contrary, staying away from big technical displays when you might expect them, but the third movement has a spring in its step nonetheless.

The Six Easy Lessons (again sounding pretty difficult!) bring parallels with the keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti, and receive crisp and characterful performances. The second movement of the First Lesson reminds of the Czech composer’s tendency to spice up his melodies with chromatic movement, and this is one of many good tunes to be found throughout these spirited pieces.

Does it all work?

Yes. The structure of Mysliveček’s output from Hammond gives an ideally balanced disc, with the concertos complemented by the solo works. The clarity of her performance ensures it can be heard in the best possible light, and recording from the BIS engineering team is ideal.

Is it recommended?

Yes, and it fills a gap in the 18th century discography. Here is an important figure on whom the spotlight so rarely shines – and we are grateful to Hammond and McGegan for directing it to the right place.

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Buy

You can buy this release directly from the BIS website