So long as the period instrument movement remained the preserve of specialists, it was never going to gain general acceptance. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment led the way in inviting conductors from the mainstream – Charles Mackerras and Simon Rattle were among the first – and that is how “authentic” music-making spread.
The latest in this line is the American David Zinman. Next season he will be working with the old-school New York Philharmonic on The Modern Beethoven, a series exploring a “historically informed approach” to the Beethoven symphonies. Here he made his debut with the OAE in an attractive concert of early 19th-century repertoire.
There is no better place to start than Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mackerras and the OAE made the first recording to reveal the magic of the Overture on period instruments – the moonlit sheen of the trio of flutes, the light rustle of the strings. Zinman’s precise conducting brought every detail alive and by adding the Intermezzo, Nocturne and Scherzo he made a miniature Mendelssohn symphony.
For its centrepiece the programme had Weber’s early romantic Clarinet Concerto No. 1, played by the OAE’s own Antony Pay. This is a showpiece and Pay made the most of it, scampering around the semiquavers like a star soprano in a Donizetti opera and hitting some high-pressure top Fs that even Joan Sutherland would have admired. The three period horns were also on their best behaviour in their slow chorale.
Then Zinman gave a foretaste of the “Modern Beethoven” he will be taking to New York. When he is conducting a traditional orchestra, his clipped manner can sometimes seem too clean-cut – as if he has frogmarched the music to the barber’s for a rather severe short back and sides. But not here: this performance of the Symphony No. 7 released the energy from Beethoven’s pent-up rhythms to exhilarating effect and lit upon interest everywhere (a shock for the second violins to find themselves so often at the centre of attention).
Throw in some improvised twiddling in the wind department and the scene was set for an imaginative recreation of Beethoven as excitingly “modern” as he must have sounded in 1813.