Mostly Mozart Festival
Starring the Majestic, Riveting, and Unmissable BeethovenBy Jonathan Richmond
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Conducted by Louis LangrÉe
Robert Levin, fortepiano solo
New York Lincoln Center
August 10, 3 p.m.
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, part of a British contingent that has saved this year’s Mostly Mozart Festival from extinction (and due to appear in Boston on October 4), pumped out Beethoven at his most raw and visceral in its Lincoln Center concert August 10. The long and crazed program flashed by in a moment, ending in wild ovations which suggested Britain would be welcome as the 51st state, should it wish to apply.
Mostly Mozart is a four-week New York summertime tradition, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra its mainstay. A bitter strike over job security led to the cancellation of all Festival Orchestra concerts, and following the strike’s resolution, only one program was restored. Mainly-British visiting bands, such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and the Gabrieli Consort, were left to save the day.
Beethoven launched some of his greatest works at a blockbuster concert in December 1808. The extended event ended with a specially composed Choral Fantasy, designed to bring together all the night’s performers -- orchestra, pianist, and singers -- for a midnight knees-up. The Londoners’ New York program didn’t offer quite the same works, but did recreate the supercharged musical orgy Beethoven had in mind.
Playing an 1829-30 Conrad Graf fortepiano, Harvard professor Robert Levin opened the all-Beethoven concert with the G minor Fantasia for Solo Piano, Op. 77, bringing out the unhinged side of the work with a display of extraordinary dynamics, while illuminating its burlesque aspects with the help of his instrument’s short-sustaining sounds.
The quick-damping keyboard action was key to the intensity of Levin’s performance in the Piano Concerto No. 4. Levin delivered high-velocity brilliance, but made one hear and feel every single note and appreciate the carefully-conceived nuances, which provided insight and delight throughout the performance.
Levin improvised his own rather elaborate cadenzas while conductor Louis LangrÉe looked on nervously, concerned not to miss the signal to bring back the band. For the second movement, said to evoke the Orpheus legend, Levin’s style became contemplative, evoking the sufferings of the gentle Orpheus, while the Furies, in search of Orpheus’s soul, sounded their stormy anger in the OAE’s precise and explosive strings.
Unlike their modern counterparts, early brass and timpani do not wipe out other instrumental voices when played full blast. LangrÉe’s merciless whipping of the orchestra during the Seventh Symphony drew unflagging bolts of energy, but at the cost of a number of flaws as the ensemble drifted apart periodically. This was a price worth paying for an elation rarely experienced in the concert hall. Strings, on the attack without distracting vibrato, joined raspy brass sounds in grabbing the senses. Winds were at some times dark and brooding, and at others, they provided punctuation of such pretty innocence as to be unnerving. This was the Beethoven of legends: majestic, riveting, impossibly intense, utterly insane.
Adrenaline wore a little thin for the concluding Choral Fantasy, which was not quite properly balanced in its execution. The piece was fun, nonetheless, and an appropriate wind-down from the raging finale of the Seventh.
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment will be performing with Cecilia Bartoli in an unmissable Boston Symphony Hall concert on October 4 as part of the Fleet Boston Celebrity Series. Bartoli is one of the most astonishing mezzos of our age, and the agile period instruments of the Enlightenment musicians are sure to sharpen the dramatic edge of her singing.