Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/ Fischer, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

It’s one small step for Beethoven and a giant leap for mankind from the First to his Eighth Symphony and to hear both works in tandem on instruments of the period only intensifies the revolution drawing us ever closer to the mighty Ninth.

Under the dynamic and enquiring baton of Ivan Fischer – one of the four conductors sharing the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s current cycle of the symphonies - it was like experiencing the elegant and benign become exuberantly subversive overnight.

The First Symphony was spry and trim, hints of Haydnesque rebellion evident only in the boldish modulation into the development of the first movement and the unexpected slow introduction of the finale. Fischer and the OAE turned all its corners most charmingly. But then a quick re-tune did nothing to dampen the arrival of the Eighth which doesn’t so much begin as explode from the page.

Stravinsky was quoted as saying that this was his favourite Beethoven symphony – which is hardly surprising since there are moments which come close to suggesting that he might have had a hand in it. The surprises are laid like banana skins, some thinly disguised as faux-pas. But most of all it’s the way Beethoven turns classicism on its head to sound almost neo-classical that Stravinsky would have loved. I loved the way Fischer and the OAE exacerbated the contrasts between the super-lyrical and the gruffly dynamic (super cross-rhythms from cellos and basses in the first movement development, energy seeming to come up through the ground). And there’s no doubt that the coarser woodier timbre of the bassoons (who get to be stars in this piece) makes their apparent misappropriation to suave and songful in the balmy trio of the third movement sound deliciously perverse.

But if we thought all that was revolutionary (and it was) it’s been a while since a performance of the ubiquitous Fifth Symphony steamed into a concert hall with quite the culture shocking force of Fischer’s account. Just when you thought you knew how the first movement went, along comes Fischer with hair-raising impetus to challenge players and listeners alike. Terse, jagged, intemperate, fermatas cut to the quick, a moment like the unexpected oboe cadenza appearing like a delusion of calm.

It was quite something, full of fresh, inquisitive detail and a finale which seemed quite literally to be ripped from darkness and strife and driven to almost delirious jubilation. Wow.

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