Orchestra Mozart at the Royal Festival Hall

Bernard Haitink conducts an all-Beethoven programme

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The billing of Claudio Abbado and Martha Argerich had packed out the Royal Festival Hall. When Abbado withdrew for health reasons, Bernard Haitink and Maria João Pires stepped in. A smattering of empty stalls seats was a measure of the fall-out, but the majority stuck with this all-Beethoven programme by the Orchestra Mozart, Abbado’s child-of-Lucerne-Festival-Orchestra ensemble.

Mentors from the Lucerne orchestra sit in some principal positions but this band is full of young Italians (you can tell by the sea of well-cut black suits and expensive shoes.) Something is afoot in Italy: with Pappano taking the Accademia di Santa Cecilia to new heights, Muti igniting his young Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini in Piacenza, the innovative Spira Mirabilis based in the country, an increasing diversity of early music ensembles and Abbado honing the Orchestra Mozart in Bologna, a once moribund orchestral scene is acquiring a leading edge.

They laid out their stall with a Leonore Overture No. 2 of raw extremes: an icy, hushed introduction drained of all colour, followed by an Allegro of wild chaos. The orchestra layout, with violas opposite first violins, successfully highlighted inner voices, aided by clean, almost vibrato-free string playing.

An austere clarity marked Haitink’s approach to the Second Piano Concerto too, softened by Pires’s pungent wit. It’s hard to believe the tiny Portugese pianist will be 70 next year: alert, buoyant and refined she produced a performance of exquisite completeness. While the first Allegro was measured in pace, it was rhythmically vivacious; she attacked the first fugal cadenza with ferocious power, and let fall glistening pearls of melody in the long-breathed Adagio, before a Rondo of dancing grace. The acoustic of the hall will never be kind to the piano, but we gained in transparency what we lost in warmth. 

The musicians around her could learn much from her uncompromising, unshowy approach. At one point in the playful Rondo, leader Raphael Christ crashed in before she had ended her phrase; a sharp solo flute spoiled both beginning and end of the Adagio. The 85-year-old Haitink exudes quiet authority, but there wasn’t the same sense of relationship I’ve seen with Abbado: it’s all very well to play as if in a chamber ensemble but principal cellist Gabriele Geminiani’s almost constant eye contact with principal viola Wolfram Christ, rather than the conductor, was distracting.

The second half brought a wonderfully fresh Symphony No. 4, with the Orchestra Mozart hitting their stride. Exchanges across the orchestra in the opening Allegro were elastic and stylish, the Allegro vivace was boisterously noisy, and the Mozartian finale sizzled. In an Adagio of limpid beauty solo winds came into their own. Fiery Egmont was a generous gift of an encore – completing a major key evening with a thrilling, dark-hued minor tonality.

Hear Orchestra Mozart with their new young Venezuelan principal conductor, Diego Matheuz, on Thursday 3 October at Southbank Centre.

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