Thursday, 14 May 2009

ECO/Davis - Haydn, Mozart, and Berlioz, 13 May 2009

Cadogan Hall

Haydn – Symphony no.94 in G major, ‘Surprise’
Mozart – Clarinet concerto in A major, KV 622
Berlioz – Les nuits d’été

Antony Pike (clarinet)
Dame Felicity Lott (soprano)
English Chamber Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

This programme seemed to be organised around composers in whose music Sir Colin Davis has long excelled, rather than any particular connections between the works being performed. Sir Colin’s association with the English Chamber Orchestra must extend back for almost half a century. There could be no doubt from this evening’s performances that the players love working with him. It is rather unusual to have the ordering symphony – concerto – song-cycle, but there is nothing wrong with that and it was quite right to save the radiant Dame Felicity Lott until the last.

Davis’s Concertgebouw set of Haydn’s London symphonies remains a failsafe recommendation; I find it almost impossible to choose between it and Eugen Jochum’s recordings with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. (Karajan and Bernstein are certainly no also-rans.) It was therefore with great relish that I looked forward to his performance of the Surprise Symphony, no.94. This was a lighter, perhaps also brighter performance, with a smaller band: the strings throughout the concert were sized The Cadogan Hall is not a large venue, so what might have sounded a touch undernourished in, say, the Barbican, did not here. Light and shade were equally apparent in an extremely well-judged introduction to the first movement. Momentary untidiness of ensemble at the opening of the exposition was soon a distant memory; when repeated, there was no such shortcoming. The woodwind struck me as especially fine, a highlight amongst highlights being the oboe trills. A strong bass line, despite the smallness of the section, underpinned rhythm, harmony, and the combination of the two, whilst Davis attended to the symphonic logic, of which there could be no doubt. The slow movement variations brought an equally strong sense of development, if different in kind. Crisp but never dry strings balanced well with ravishing woodwind. There were sterner moments, for instance the turn to the minor mode in the second variation and the ensuing contrapuntal writing, but one could hear Haydn smiling behind such learning. In the third variation, the oboe soloist once again impressed greatly, as did William Bennett’s contribution on the flute. Trumpets imparted a military impression in the next variation, but it was still fun. To my surprise, Davis took the minuet one-to-a-bar. Still, it was never hard-driven and this music is harmonically less complex than late Mozart. Haydn can take such treatment, especially when taken with a swing such as here. The finale was fast but not too fast; the violins sparkled as if their notes were fountain water at Schönbrunn – or, perhaps better, Esterháza. (Yes, I am well aware that the symphony was written for London.) Harmonic security was very much the key to the fizz that accompanied the music; never did it degenerate into a scramble, as too often it can. Drive and grace were shown to be far from antithetical. Most important, there was always a smile upon the face of the music we heard. And how much more natural this sounded than so many, more consciously ‘moulded’, Haydn performances; indeed, I do not think it could have sounded more natural.

If Davis has long been estimable in Haydn, he has reigned supreme in Mozart since the death of Karl Böhm. (When I count the present-day conductors I should positively wish to hear in Mozart, I find myself unable to go beyond five.) I was not, however, entirely convinced by the first movement of the clarinet concerto, which I felt was taken a little too fast. Granted, there were plenty of opportunities for the music – as well as the soloist – to breathe, but the mood seemed unduly lacking in that almost Brahmsian autumnal quality which, for me at least, is one of the hallmarks of so much late Mozart. (Another would be the bewildering dialectic between simplicity and complexity, supremely evident in The Magic Flute.) Antony Pike, himself a member of the ECO, provided a well shaped solo lone, nicely flexible, and inviting of tone. The low notes of his basset clarinet sang out beautifully, although he encountered a few technical problems. I had no qualms whatsoever concerning the slow movement. It was warm, aria-like – was that the Countess I heard? The music was nostalgic but never mawkish, home to true Mozartian ambivalence – how utterly different he is from Haydn! – especially through the orchestral shadows. Here the warming yet fragile rays of the sun upon an autumn afternoon could certainly be felt. Clearly, the musicians loved this music deeply – and how could they not? The finale exhibited an apt sense of play but did not go undisturbed by shadows. Its hunting compound duple rhythm notwithstanding, joy was not nearly so unalloyed as it would have been with Haydn. Yet, if sometimes we were smiling through tears, we were still smiling.

The second half was devoted to Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été. There were occasions here when I felt the lack of a greater body of strings, but they were perhaps surprisingly few. For instance, upon the climatic words of Sur les lagunes, ‘Et comme je l’aimais!/Je n’aimerai jamais,’ the ECO’s strings impressively showed how much strength they really could muster. Their pizzicato palpitations during the haunting – in more than one sense – Le spectre de la rose – were equally fine. There were once again some splendid woodwind solos, and Sir Colin – unsurprisingly – put not a foot wrong, every tempo sounding right, every transition perfectly judged. It was only really in the first song, Villanelle, that the musicians sounded a touch ill at ease, and this should certainly not be exaggerated. Dame Felicity also truly came into her own in its successor, Le spectre de la rose, incalculable wealth of meaning subtly invested in a single word such as ‘virginal’, even if the transformation, such as it was, were only apparent in retrospect; for one could certainly hear a twinkle in her voice on the final line of each stanza in Villanelle. The restlessness of Berlioz’s orchestration in Sur les lagunes was apparent throughout. Lott imparted a grave beauty to Théophile Gautier’s words – and Berlioz’s setting – though never at the expense of style. The very occasional edge to her voice in Absence was irrelevant in the face of such artistry, the repetitions of ‘Reviens, reviens’ ever the same and yet ever different. It should be said that, here as elsewhere, her every word was crystal clear. Au cimetière was properly unsettling, a true child of the strange phenomenon that is French Romanticism. Berlioz’s weird harmonies were never turned into a freak show and therefore emerged all the more meaningfully. And the Romantic expectation that could be conjured from a single word such as ‘éveillée’ (awakened) once again provided an object lesson in vocal artistry. The final song, L’île inconnue, brought the right sense of adventure but also a hint at fears of what the unknown might bring. I especially liked the bubbling woodwind in the final stanza, gently mocking the girl who naïvely wished to be taken to a shore where love might last forever. This was a fine performance indeed.

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