A generation ago the newly formed Chamber Orchestra of Europe presented a cycle of Beethoven symphonies that changed the interpretative landscape. Conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the orchestra laid the groundwork for what has become the 21st-century norm – a style combining the best of tradition and the best of the period revolution. It was explosive then and, judging by its latest Beethoven with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, it is just as explosive now.
The orchestra, which still has 16 of its original members (out of 48 present in Edinburgh), is not bound by contract but by desire – and the desire to make white-hot music was evident throughout this concert. Its Beethoven Seventh Symphony had many of the footprints Harnoncourt instilled all those years ago – the flaring accents, the arresting fermatas, the natural trumpets and hard timpani sticks that, once upon a time, stood out in an ensemble of modern instruments.
But today there are fewer eccentricities. Nézet-Séguin, the greatest generator of energy on the international podium, shows a subtler appreciation of the music’s tension and relaxation, creating the elastic intensity the slow movement needs but rarely receives, and calibrating the spring-coil effect on which the Scherzo depends. The performance sizzled, not least in the race to the end, where Nézet-Séguin underlined how much the classical era depended on those repeated stamping chords to create momentum.
The first half of the concert had served as a gentle warm-up for the main act, by showcasing members of the orchestra in two rarely performed concertante masterpieces – Richard Strauss’s Duett-Concertino for clarinet and bassoon, and Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola. This was an inspired piece of programming, but it did not work out quite as well as intended. It is good when orchestras showcase their members’ soloistic talent, but these two performances followed a stereotype, the less showy instruments in each case coming across with insufficient personality and profile. That’s a risk you run when you ask ensemble-habitués to step out front. But the Strauss thrived on the extrovert artistry of clarinettist Romain Guyot, and violinist Lorenza Borrani sweetened the Mozart.