Kenneth Montgomery conducts the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century at the National Concert Hall, 29th November 2014
This is the first Irish visit of the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, probably the finest period instrument orchestra in the world. The visit comes at a sad but interesting moment in the orchestra’s history, after the death of their founder Frans Brüggen earlier this year. This orchestra is fascinating to watch for many reasons, even before the subject of musicality is raised. It is obvious that the players enjoy each other’s company and not just the music they are performing, and they have a lot of fun on stage; rather than rising awkwardly when conductor Kenneth Montgomery beckons them to stand, they (standing already at this point in the concert) thrust their instruments high in the air like trophies, grinning madly. At one point, in an unusual departure from rank-defined protocol, Montgomery gestures for the concertmaster to walk off stage and follows behind him, and the rest of the orchestra exit ‘willy-nilly’ rather than in an orderly queue. Famously, Brüggen was paid – even in his later years – the same rate as his orchestral musicians; an egalitarian deference to the musicians that is hard to imagine from Harnoncourt or other top early music conductors. This may all seem rather beside the point in a concert review, but it seems likely that this slightly informal, less hierarchical culture is part of what makes the orchestra’s exuberant, daring sound possible.
Another interesting, inaudible element of the performance is the orchestra’s experimentation with seating arrangements. Throughout the concert, the string section is laid out in an unconventional manner way: The cellos are dead centre, all four in a single line, while the violas bi-locate, with one desk to the left of the cellos and the other to the right. For the first half (Haydn, Field and Mozart) the orchestra sit and wind and brass are in conventional positions, but for the all-Handel second half the orchestra stand, and the flutes and oboes go in front of the first and second violins, grouping instruments by voice so that there is no distance between flutes and first violins (for example) when they play the same line.
Irish pianist Finghin Collins is in the middle of a six-date tour with the orchestra, a huge honour, but one that is richly deserved judging from his performance tonight. For these concerts, he plays on an 1822 Broadwood instrument, which is vastly different in sound and mechanism to a modern grand. John Field’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat is a strange piece, not without charm but certainly no masterpiece, but Collins’ interpretation is both technically assured and full of wit. Hopefully, we will have the pleasure of hearing plenty more of Collins on eighteenth century instruments, as Ireland is sorely lacking in the area of fortepiano specialists.
Rosanne van Sandwijk, mezzo-soprano soloist, has a stunning voice, beautiful in Mozart’s Ch’io mi scordi di te? and perfect for Scherza Infida, one of Handel’s masterworks. Montgomery also comes in to his own in the Handel, which seems to be something of a specialty for him. This aria from the opera Ariodante is the highlight of the concert, plumbing emotional depths not explored elsewhere in the programme.
This is an orchestra where players live on the edge, constantly taking risks and having the attitude that the sin of being boring is worse than the sin of making a mistake. This insecurity is the key to playing Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, which can so easily sound over-serious and contrived. Of course, this way of performing only works when the players are good enough to behave this way without actually making mistakes, and it is the extraordinary technique of the players in the orchestra that also produces their thrilling, distinctive sound. The concert is a joy, and it is also highly encouraging to see this orchestra touring with both a Belfast-born conductor and a Dublin-born pianist.
Haydn Symphony No. 99 in E flat major
Field Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major
Mozart Ch’io mi scordi di te? K505
Handel Scherza Infida (from Ariodante)
Handel Music for the Royal Fireworks