At first glance, the programme for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s latest visit to Oxford seemed a bit predictable. The great triumvirate of the late 18th-century German tradition – Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – dominated the evening, as they so often do. But it would be surprising if anyone left the Sheldonian Theatre feeling that this was a predictable rendition of these well-known classics. The dazzling concert did justice to the trio’s virtuosity and mischievous sense of humour. The audience were also given a rare chance to hear the work of a less well-known, but no less fascinating, figure: Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, widely regarded as the first classical composer of African lineage.
Promotional materials displayed an orchestra seeking to break stereotypes of what it means to be a classical musician. Members of the OAE dominate the posters, holding banners bearing slogans such as, “Not All Orchestras Are the Same.” Their singular and absorbing performance exemplified this outlook, though their entrance and low-key presentation betrayed none of the fireworks that were to come. Before the concert began, musicians sauntered around the floor of the Sheldonian, admiring the glorious ceiling, chatting and waving to audience members. In contrast to the starchy formality of some orchestras, the OAE were strikingly relaxed. Even their conductor, Sir Roger Norrington, shuffled on with hands in pockets, grinning modestly and exchanging a few words with the principal strings.
This laidback preparation only served to create a greater contrast with the performance itself. With Haydn’s Symphony No. 83, the orchestra sprang into a frenzy of activity. Every note was imparted with a searing energy, with each tutti rest or pause becoming a breathless moment of anticipation. The playful, dance-like quality of the work’s first movement made it the perfect opening. Norrington’s engaging style brought out the unifying theme of the programme, comedy, by emphasising each quirk and quotation in Haydn’s witty writing. The second movement hinted at something darker, while the third’s joyful minuet evoked the Esterházy ballroom for which the composer created much of his work.
Here, horns provided warmth to the texture, while the flautist’s range of tones and colours in different registers always created subtle changes in light and shade. The tranquil atmosphere at the end of this movement was swiftly dispelled by the start of the next, where a vigorous string motif teemed and multiplied before evolving into a grand introduction. The drama of the finale was accentuated by the orchestra’s impressively unified sound, aided by Norrington’s direction. Comedy was apparent even in this tumultuous ending, with the conductor gleefully glancing over his shoulder after the final note, to suggest that we were in on the joke.
Mozart’s much-loved Concerto for Flute and Harp followed. Despite the engaging interplay between soloists Lisa Beznosiuk (flute) and Frances Kelly (harp), the ensemble felt rather subdued in contrast to what had come before. Though attentive, their desire to follow the nuances of the soloists led them to lose the instinctive fire that had characterised the Haydn.
The second half began with an overture from the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. As Norrington explained at the end of the interval, Saint-Georges was an integral part of the musical salons of Paris towards the end of the 18th century. He conducted the premiere of the Haydn symphony we had heard earlier, and he lived in the same house as Mozart during the latter’s unhappy sojourn in the French capital. The OAE’s rendition of his overture, L’amant Anonyme, earned its place alongside his better-known contemporaries, with its energy and clarity rivalling Haydn’s. A slower contemplative section offered a chance to hear the orchestra convey a different mood, before the piece closed with formidable speed and power, led by the irrepressible bass section.
Against this context, Beethoven’s compositional innovations were immediately apparent. His Second Symphony was so skilfully and emphatically interpreted that each movement drew multiple waves of applause from the audience. The finale was particularly impressive, providing a blissfully anarchic close to the evening. Each string chord was a gut wrench, every timpani interjection a heart-stopping thunderclap. The movement gained huge momentum before one of the quietest climaxes I’ve heard in the concert hall: one serene piano chord, which evoked a seemingly limitless space. Norrington then whipped the orchestra back up to full fury, to conclude in a bombastic chorus, a suitable end to a concert buoyed by wit and excellently executed shifts in dynamic. It would be no surprise if the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s performance is considered the most uplifting of the Sheldonian’s season.
For more information about the OAE, please visit their website.