Love and Duty Back

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was founded in 1986, fairly late on in the period-instrument movement, and has avoided in its thirty-year existence both complacency and rigidity in its approach to authenticity. Coming a little later to the platform has enabled them to learn from earlier practice so that they continually fine-tune their priorities and approach. This is the right balance to strike where any search to recover original intention involves a degree of fiction and carefully judged imagination. Authenticity is not an absolute but an exercise in relativity based on where you choose to stop the watch. Historical practice offers a variety of points of entry to music both unfamiliar and all-too-familiar, and as tonight’s enterprising bill of fare showed, extends as much to programming as it does to instruments and platform layouts.

This concert forms part of the orchestra’s season devoted to the theme ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’, focused on debates surrounding the definition of human freedom in the revolutionary decades of the later eighteenth century. ‘Love and Duty’ and the conflicts between the two of them might be said to be bound up in almost every opera and oratorio of the period, but the focus here is on works by Gluck, Haydn and Mozart that broke free of the strait-jacket imposed by the da capo aria form preferred by Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and their contemporaries. Formal changes led to new and more daring kinds of emotional expression too, and it is those that lie at the heart of this exploration by Madalena Kožená and the orchestra.

A further key ingredient is provided by a return to ‘miscellaneous’ programming in which various arias are interleaved with the four movements of Mozart’s 40th Symphony in G Minor. It is easy to forget that the standard convention of ‘overture-concerto-symphony’ was a nineteenth-century – in fact late nineteenth-century – creation. All the composers represented here were used to organising concerts in which movements of symphonies jostled alongside vocal arias and instrumental solos, à la carte rather than table d’hôte. There are real advantages to this: you can focus on each movement and its repeats as an item in isolation; and everyone performing gets a rest, which means the players are better able to focus on making all those characteristic repeats as varied and distinctive as possible.

We certainly heard the benefits in Symphony 40, an over-familiar work in the concert hall, which we were made to listen to with fresh ears. The contrapuntal energy of the first movement fired into life swiftly, and by restricting the orchestra to Mozart’s original dimensions we were aware of the gaps between the lines as well. The anguish and dynamic contrasts of the Andante gained an unexpected but not portentous weight when heard in isolation, and the minuet and fierce finale also impressed. Conductor Giovanni Antonini, whom we know best for his work with Il Giardino Armonico, set chiefly brisk speeds and maintained an excellent aural balance between sections, except at a few points where the single flute was eclipsed. Throughout, the audience were made aware of just how many classical works are indebted in structure/harmony to this masterwork.

The vocal repertory chosen by Kožená was for the most part far less familiar, so instead of making us look afresh at an old friend, her task was more about unveiling hidden treasures. Her performances had some uncertainty to start with. After a gentle warm-up aria which set out the skilful understatement of Gluck’s new approach to Italian opera, her delivery of Susanna’s alternate aria from Act 4 of Figaro was too artful and mannered to convince while also containing some awkward changes of register. She really hit her stride with an incisively acted realisation of Haydn’s Scena di Berenice, a work from his London years that really deserves to be better known. The plangent recitatives, picked out with evocative orchestration, are quite the equal of anything in The Creation and The Seasons, and the clash of passion with the claims of orthodox duty were thrillingly evoked by a singer in her dramatic element.

The second half of the programme was consistently assured and varied. In Gluck’s Il Parnaso confuso, Kožená distinguished delicately between the strophic statements and achieved a fine synergy with the delicious pizzicato strings representing the plucking of a lyre. But perhaps the most effective and affecting music of the evening came from her rendition of Sesto’s two arias from La Clemenza di Tito. By this stage in his career Mozart could take the stiffest and most unpromising material by Metastasio and transform it into music of both transcendent beauty and compelling psychological exploration. The despair lurking under the sharp discords of ‘Deh per questo istante’ was palpably represented, and in ‘Parto, Parto’ singer and clarinettist Antony Pay combined and competed with one another to give expressive double meaning to the final lines ‘Ah ye Gods, what power have ye given beauty’. What power indeed!

This was a most satisfying evening of music-making at a very high level, rounded off with a poised, if not arch, performance of ‘Voi che sapete’. This served to remind us of the singer’s fine record in ‘trouser-roles’, in this case as Cherubino, and her gift for comedy, not much in demand for this programme. We were also made to think hard about the boundaries of the ancient and the modern: for if so much of our own listening through Spotify or iPods is also a personal, sometimes random selection, why should our concert programming not mirror that pattern once more, just as it did in the eighteenth century?

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performed Love and Duty, featuring music by Mozart, Gluck and Haydn, at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 4 February 2019.