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Arts Festival Review: Freiburg Baroque Orchestra

Arts Festival Review: Freiburg Baroque Orchestra

Review by Dominic Groom

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
Directed by Renee Jacobs with Teunis van der Zwart (Horn)
Wellington Town Hall
March 17, 18

Concert 1: 17 March
J. HAYDN: Symphony in E flat Hob 1:91
MOZART : Concerto No. 5 in E flat for horn and orchestra K 495
MOZART : Symphony No. 38 in D K 504 Prague


A period instrument orchestra was a fresh live sound to my ears, having only heard such orchestras previously in recording. Opportunities to see groups like this in New Zealand are likely to remain few and far between into the foreseeable future, as these are highly specialised outfits with equipment and skills that have been re-developed predominantly in Europe. I salute Festival organisers for procuring the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra – presenting performance excellence not available in the general musical calendar and headlining with Mozart really make them a marketing no-brainer.

Last night’s programme included Haydn’s Symphony No 91 and two works by Mozart, the Prague Symphony and a Horn Concerto. I’ve got a real soft spot for hearing this repertoire live when played stylistically by a small band, and to hear it essayed by a world leading ensemble was a mouth-watering prospect.

The Haydn was a delight, laced with his customary humour. The first movement, which introduced a chromatic theme that was echoed throughout the work, was followed by a wry Andante, a Minuet featuring some beautiful bassoon in the Trio, and a rollicking Finale. Typical Haydn then, and played with great aplomb.

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As a recovering horn-player, I have to admit a special interest in Teunis van der Zwart in Mozart Concerto No 4. The technique of altering the placement of the right hand in the horn’s bell to achieve a wider range of notes than offered by the natural harmonics of the valveless instrument is fascinating to behold. Van der Zwart was in total control throughout with a rich sound enhanced by tasteful vibrato, using the changes in tone for emphasis and nuance. A first movement cadenza was adventurous in its style, but fitted well enough in its context. The familiar Rondo was played for fun, although the result had a little less precision than, say, the impeccable, singing style of the Andante. It was an extroverted and enjoyable performance.

Mozart’s Prague Symphony is not one I am hugely fond of. It never threatens to reach the heights of the final three symphonies and can sound somewhat work-a-day by comparison. The orchestra showed great flexibility in a delicately nuanced Andante and the Presto went at an impressive pace with lively playing across the band.

This is a wonderful group. While technically secure in every way, the most remarkable achievement was the sound. They managed to be articulate but never clipped, always light but powerful when required. The whole was balanced to perfection. The sound of the wind section was particularly pleasing, and had me reflecting on what has been lost in the quest for greater range, facility and volume.

Interestingly, a continuo player was seated at the harpsichord throughout both symphonies to support the bass and middle registers. I never heard him once, and nor did anyone I spoke to after. Also interesting was director Rene Jacobs. Internationally renowned and feted, a superb interpreter of this repertoire and developer of singers and ensembles, he seemed to have little in the way of conducting technique. An interesting sight, but it didn’t seem to matter at all.

If I had one complaint, it was that the cumulative effect of all that Mozart and Haydn ended up being not much more than the sum of its parts. I wished this group had come to tackle a wider range of repertoire – an early Beethoven symphony or perhaps some quirky early classical miniature. However, there could be no qualms about the execution. A once in a generation opportunity to hear music-making like this that was lapped up by a large and appreciative audience at home with the works and awed by the technical and artistic accomplishment. A spirited encore – I’d eat my hat if it wasn’t more Haydn – rounded out a charming evening. Anyone with an opportunity to hear the same orchestra in Mozart’s perfect Jupiter Symphony on March 18 must jump at the chance.

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Press releases: Orchestra Breaks Baroque Music Out of the Box, SchoolFest offers access to international artists, Students Get Unparalleled Access to NZIAF
Arts Festival website: Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
Scoop Full Coverage: Arts Festival 2010

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