When Claudio Abbado, founder-conductor of the Bologna-based Orchestra Mozart, pulled out of its London debut on health grounds, prompting Martha Argerich, his soloist, to go too, the organisers of the Southbank Centre’s Shell Classic International series faced a dilemma. Should they hand the concert to the orchestra’s little-known Venezuelan principal guest conductor, risking a huge drop in box-office income? Or scramble around for high-profile replacements? That Bernard Haitink and Maria João Pires were available and willing was serendipitous, but the concert was an anti-climax and we were left wondering whether Diego Matheuz, the dynamic young Venezuelan, might have been a better solution after all.
The programme was all-Beethoven – Leonore No 2 Overture, Second Piano Concerto, Fourth Symphony. It is hard – no, impossible – to think of any conductor alive who knows Beethoven’s symphonic music better than Haitink, but until the third movement of the symphony the music-making refused to catch fire, and it was only in the encore, an Egmont overture of properly Beethovenian explosiveness, that conductor and orchestra were anywhere near a common wavelength.
At the start of the evening they behaved like partners in an arranged marriage, struggling to find a shared language and direction. The orchestra, an occasional gathering of predominantly youthful Italians and older Abbado stalwarts, spent the first half of the concert producing a clean, committed sound with not a lot of freedom or personality. After a studied overture, it was left to Pires to pump some warmth and brio into the proceedings with her crisply enunciated concerto performance, played on a Yamaha with a blunt but not unattractive sound.
The symphony began much as the overture had done, a shade dutifully, but by the scherzo some sort of alchemy was stirring, and the finale flickeringly evoked memories of the veteran Dutch conductor’s glory years with the London Philharmonic, decades ago. That Haitink’s hands were tied here was not his fault. As Abbado’s baby, Orchestra Mozart is finding its way: it has neither the lived-in weight of a traditional ensemble, nor the spirit and style of a period band. It needs to outgrow its maker.