Classical Review: Voices fit for a desert island disc

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Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, Monteverdi Choir / John Eliot Gardiner

Barbican Hall, London

Memory suggests that the programming of major works by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven within the same orchestral concert has become one of the rarest of musical feasts, as if the idea was in some way politically incorrect or at least unfair to the many late 18th-century composer who rarely get a chance.

Thankfully, John Eliot Gardiner shows not the least sign of conforming to spurious doctrines of concert building, and on Tuesday prefaced the first in an occasional series of performances of Haydn's late masses with some dramatic choruses from Mozart's Idomeneo and a revelatory account of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, the sort of bill that requires no marketing hype to convince an audience of its greatness.

Mozart's operatic choruses underlined the revolutionary rather than romantic side of Gardiner's orchestra, especially so in the bold contrasts between wind and string tone colour. The brief wind-band interlude in Idomeneo's final chorus, "Scenda Amor, scenda Imeneo", easily unnoticed in the theatre as the work enters the home straight, was crafted here with great eloquence and perfect ensemble; likewise, the choral sopranos caught the ear with the unbeatable unity, projection and fullness of their sound. If shipwrecked, I would demand the Monteverdi Choir's women as my desert island luxury, even if only in their recorded form.

Beauty of sound was also prominent in the Beethoven concerto, played here (on a faultless replica of an 1805 Walter fortepiano) by Robert Levin. The Barbican concert hall is not kind to period keyboard instruments, although the soloist treated the problem of balance as an opportunity to captivate his audience with the most delicate playing imaginable. The faint whiff of musical antiseptic that lingered over the piano's introduction was blown away by the first orchestral tutti, with Levin able to spin crisp and clean legato lines against the band's dependable accompaniment. Boldly improvised cadenzas in the fast movements and passages contoured with subtle light and shade in the Andante and elsewhere proved more than adequate compensation for the limited dynamic range of Levin's instrument.

The deliberately clear, staccato articulation favoured by Gardiner in Haydn's Nelson Mass had about it the ring of designer music-making, with final cadences brought to a dead halt and fugues delivered with ruthless, mechanical efficiency. For all the fine orchestral playing, Gerald Finley's majestic bass solo and peerless work by the Monteverdi Choir, overall this was a clinical, almost obsessively narrow performance, big on warlike sounds and moments of doom, yet strangely distant from Haydn's concluding message of salvation.

Of course Gardiner's related concerns for drama and rhythmic precision inspired thrilling highlights, not least in the Benedictus with its threatening military fanfares and no less intimidating team of trumpeters, standing to deliver their contributions both here and throughout the work. But his preoccupation with shortening notes, driving through phrases and whipping up excitement, however gratifying, removed all trace of humility from the mass, turned parts of the Creed into meaningless incantations and undermined the absolute security of ensemble in places where no such uncertainty need exist.

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