Haydn, Mozart and a visit from Madonna

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Labèque Sisters, Royal Festival Hall, 21 June

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They do say Haydn is a musician’s musician, but he’s clearly not a favourite of Madonna’s. Which is a shame because in avoiding his music she missed the highlight of this concert. Her diminutive figure was seen stealing into the Royal Festival Hall (RFH) almost incognito (were she not the only audience member in dark glasses) just as Papa Haydn’s eccentric, penetrating symphony No. 64 ended.

Sir Simon Rattle (left), who elicited playing of great tonal sophistication and exquisite balance from the players, was not the draw: it was the ravishing Labèque sisters in their bejewelled 18th century-style coats and raven-black locks that Madge had come to see. These days the Parisian sisters are mentors to rock royalty – Sting and Herbie Hancock among them - but quite what Madonna made of Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos K315 played on fragile fortepianos taxes the imagination.

Beginning with a throaty trill, which on these instruments had the air of low, distant laughter, the concerto is a charming exercise in mirror images and teasing echoes, and the sisters choreographed it beautifully, accompanied with gossamer touch by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE). It says much for the improved acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall (RFH) that we could hear every note of these delicate keyboard timbres, and there was a collective held breath during the cadenza.

After the interval, when Madonna had long left the building, Mozart’s graceful Symphony No. 33 was followed by Haydn’s magnificent Symphony No. 95, written just after Mozart’s death, and in many ways a tribute to his Jupiter Symphony (No. 41). Here, at last, was some dramatic meat to feast on, from the incisive variations to the eloquent cello solo in the Trio, played with great character by Pierre Doumenge, and the extravagant last movement, complete with trumpets and drums.

The OAE was celebrating 25 years in the business. In their very first concert Sigiswald Kuijken directed Haydn’s Symphony No. 83 and even then the ensemble was seen to be raising the profile of period performance. An early critic remarked ‘could this at last be a group of musicians…. able to make an audience forget for a moment whether or not the flutes are made of wood, and whether the direction comes from batons or bows?’

The comment found a resonance in this evening, with a satisfying juxtaposition of mellow, woody winds, fiery horns and a pianissimo string sound as open and subtle as dawn light. The last time I saw Rattle on the RFH stage he was micro-managing the Berlin Philharmonic in Mahler. He’s said that the OAE, for whom he has loyally remained Principal Artist, ‘freed him’. And an alchemy occurs, when his technical mastery meets those ruggedly individual players of the OAE, which can still produce gold.

 

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

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