With the sudden cancellation of András Schiff and his Cappella Andrea Barca’s appearance, the Lucerne Festival management and audience alike were most fortunate when the Freiburger Barockorchester (last reviewed in these pages in Nicolas McGegan’s marvellous recording of Ariodante—cross-reference below) was able to find its way to Lucerne for a program of Mozart and Haydn.
After close to two-dozen orchestra performances where the conductor stood on the podium and the players mostly sat (percussionists on duty and some of the double basses being the exceptions), it was instructive to see that situation reversed. With the Freiburg musicians, leader/violinist Brian Dean and the rest of the troupe (excepting, of course the harpsichord and the cellos) stood throughout. The fascinating difference is that measure for measure, and cadence for cadence, the conductor-less, “chair-less” group scored much higher on the “togetherness” scale.
Most surely Dean used his bow, visage and body to establish tempi and attend to various details of interpretation (including a somewhat affected second beat in the “Allegro maestoso” of the opening Mozart symphony—a choice one can respect, even if to these ears, it didn’t ring true). His devotion and obvious understanding of the repertoire at hand happily spilled over into his colleagues’ performances. The principal cellist most especially leaned into the music and caught the eye of other key principals (notably the exceptionally gifted double bassist and principal second violin). Better still—and so extraordinarily rare it seems these days—the unwritten but expected harmonic subtleties (adding weight to certain key notes as they, in turn, drive the music onwards to key cadential resolutions) were fully realized. Frankly, I had nearly given up finding others who understood the critical harmonic subtext.
The Mozart symphony was a marvel of freshness and crisp, clean articulation (the “Andante grazioso” was a constant pleasure); the final “Allegro” overflowed with happiness and joy—what fun to see the players literally move as one, which was reflected in the incredibly taut result.
The two solo works featured two of the ensemble’s members (violinist Kathrin Tröger, bassoonist Javier Zafra) and guest artist Christine Schornsheim (hammerklavier).
It was clear from the first measure of the Haydn that both soloists were at one with each other’s styles. Their give-and-take interaction kept the music moving steadily forward. The cadenza in the “Allegro moderato” was delightfully conversational and succinct—the return was one of many seamless reconnections referred to earlier. The “Andante ma adagio” was carefully served up over a wonderful bed of syncopation and pizzicato even as the soloists shared all of its lines with a compelling feeling of spontaneity. The Finale had several inventive episodes (with the balance remarkably good considering the potential for the early keyboard to be overshadowed by the other forces). Of course, the challenge of performing on original instruments does come at a price; fortunately there were only a few pitch vagaries in the late-inning upper register from Tröger before the concerto closed with commendable vigour.
After the break, Zafra gave a zesty reading of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto where the “Allegro” was spirited on all fronts and the first cadenza was ideally formed and presented. The “Andante ma adagio” was remarkably lyrical even if this time the cadenza came across as somewhat out of character with all that preceded. The nimble bassoonist led a merry chase around the closing “Rondo” that drove everyone relentlessly to the double bar and barely managed to survive a near miss after the last totally solo intervention.
The Haydn symphony—despite a couple of unpredictable natural horn miss-hits—sadly at the end of the opening “Allegro assai con brio”—was in many ways the best of a very good program. The drama of the first movement was perfectly balanced by the lovingly crafted lines and lift in the “Andante”; the “Menuetto” engagingly swung before the “Allegretto” gently danced. The Finale, like its tempo indication, was magically rendered: “Presto” there’s fleet-footed art without any need of baton. JWR