Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Jurowski, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Beethoven rules again at the South Bank. It’s been ten years since the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment embarked upon its first complete cycle of Beethoven Symphonies but it was long before that that we first began to understand what it meant to hear these audacious pieces played on instruments of the period.

The OAE’s current catchphrase “not all orchestras are the same” is a neat way of reminding seasoned concert-goers and first-timers alike that the shock of the new is something that can be rekindled in perpetuity.

Certainly as Vladimir Jurowski laid down the crepuscular introduction to Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony the explosion of light announcing the allegro vivace was the last thing on our minds. That’s Beethoven for you. The extremes know no bounds, the alternation of darkness and light, elegance and grit can be instantaneous. It’s the immediacy of period instruments, the forwardness of every sonority that throws this music into the sharpest possible relief. The allegros are all fizz and rosin with brassy trumpets and hard-sticked timpani adding their explosive punctuations.

But Jurowski and the orchestra also showed us how much more satisfying it can be when the beauty of the main theme in Beethoven’s tender adagio is achieved in the honesty of the phrasing as opposed to the varnishing of the vibrato. The modern symphony orchestra is a fine thing but we need to be wary of not putting the beauty of the sound before the beauty of the music. It’s as simple – and as complicated – as that.

I mentioned elegance and grit – and they were inseparable in the finale of the Fourth Symphony where the almost unstoppable momentum vividly foreshadowed the all-dancing, all-pulsating, Seventh Symphony to come. And where period instruments really score in a work like that is in the sense of every sinew being stretched in pursuit of new highs and new dynamism. What a thrill to hear those brassy horns stopped high to achieve lift-off at the start of the first movement’s vaulting vivace. I thought Jurowski could have pushed the tempo a little more here – it’s amazing what a difference a hair’s breadth of extra momentum can make.

But then again the sense of reined-in energy finally breaking loose come the finale certainly made for a big pay-off. Jurowski really nailed the storming triple-forte climax to the central development and there’ll no doubt be stomping feet when he and the orchestra power the whole event over to a promenade performance at the Roundhouse.