Sunday 7 March 2010

Orchestra of St John's/Lubbock - Handel, Bach, Alec Roth, and Haydn, 6 March 2010

Handel – Solomon: ‘Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’
Bach – Cantata no.51: Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51
Alec Roth – Departure of the Queen of Sheba
Haydn – Symphony no.44 in E minor, ‘Trauer’

Louise Wayman (soprano)
Orchestra of St John’s
John Lubbock (conductor)

There was much to enjoy in this, the third and final concert from the Orchestra of St John’s residency at Kings Place, which has sought to give a taste of the orchestra’s aversion to modish, ghettoising specialisation. ‘Specialists in nullity,’ was one of Boulez’s several dismissive remarks concerning the proponents of such an approach. For, as the OSJ’s founder and conductor, John Lubbock, comments:

More than forty years ago, when I set up this orchestra, many of my colleagues were doing very specialist things, like John Eliot Gardiner with his English Baroque Soloists and Christopher Hogwood with his Academy of Ancient Music, for example. We decided that we would go the other way, and play everything, from the late Baroque, to classical repertoire through twentieth-century works to the most contemporary music. So it’s that distinctive identity I wanted to communicate here: a good spread of all the different things we do, to show our versatility.

To that end, and what an increasingly rare blessing this is, the orchestra plays on modern instruments, albeit with chamber forces: perfectly appropriate for the venue, whose virtues Lubbock rightly extols:

I think Hall One is an absolute triumph – not only is it a beautiful hall acoustically and a pleasure for the audience to sit in, but it’s a pleasure to play in. The back stage facilities are second to none, and the technical and stage management team simply can’t do enough. We can get a thirty-seven piece orchestra on to the stage, that’s strings, thirteen [wood-]wind and brass, plus timps. That means we could do Beethoven symphonies. It’s ideal.

I am not sure that I harbour an overwhelming desire to hear Beethoven from such forces, but nevertheless the principle of a small hall requiring a smaller number of musicians holds – and for the most part worked well here. With strings scaled, there were only a few instances when the violins sounded undernourished. Moreover, there was none of that ghastly whining that passes for ‘Baroque style’ in fashionable quarters. Indeed, in the opening Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, an old ‘lollipop’ was made to taste, not through presenting an exhibitionistic attempt to be different or more likely ‘correct’, but by trusting Handel’s music to take care of itself, with a little assistance from Lubbock’s sensitive command. Dynamic contrasts and subtle shading played their part, as did a keen understanding of harmonic direction.

Bach may have been an exact contemporary of Handel, but his requirements are, in general, very different. Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen stands perhaps closer to Handel than many of Bach’s works, though even in this combination of rejoicing and vocal display, there is a great deal more at stake. Handel’s two oboes were replaced by Andrew Dunn’s trumpet: not so stunning as, say, Maurice André in such repertoire, but quietly impressive. And the orchestra retained something of its Handelian brightness of tone. Discreet organ continuo was provided by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent. Louise Wayman’s account of the soprano part grew in confidence. At first, she looked – and sounded – a little nervous, somewhat boyish in tone, but a greater level of engagement with the text was to be heard as the work progressed. Coloratura and ornamentation were generally well handled. Whilst verbal meaning was rarely stressed, there was a nicely imploring tone to ‘deine Kinder’ (the Lord’s children) in the aria, ‘Höchster, mache deine Güte,’ and greater use of vibrato in the ensuing chorale suggested the greater surety expressed in the text. Lubbock ensured that the recitative, ‘Wir beten zu dem Tempel an,’ sounded properly Bachian in tending more towards arioso. Indeed, the musical flow of the work was impressive throughout. If the final ‘Alleluia!’ were taken at a more sedate tempo than the blessed Elisabeth, there is much to be said for that. Admirable though Schwarzkopf may be here, there is a case for something a little more yielding.

The second half opened with Alec Roth’s Departure of the Queen of Sheba, written for the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in 1999, inspired by Ana Maria Pacheco’s painting, Queen of Sheba and King Solomon in the Garden of Earthly Delights. I am afraid I soon found myself wishing that the Queen would depart at least as quickly as she had arrived. That she took her time is doubtless in part owed to the programmatic concern, Solomon and his guest being loath to separate, but a little of this music would still have goned a considerable way. Beginning with a slowed down and otherwise somewhat varied version of Handel’s figuration, the lovers, offstage oboe representing the queen and English horn the king, soon commence their loquacious yet languorous dialogue. Unabashedly tonal, the mildness would not seem out of place in a television drama of a certain age or even a Merchant Ivory film: nothing to frighten away a Daily Mail reader, I should have thought. Vaughan Williams and Gershwin occasionally vied for attention, albeit with a little too much diluting to taste. There was nothing unpleasant; it was just blandly inconsequential. The performance, however, seemed to me excellent, not least from the soloists, Chris O’Neal and Alison Alty.

It was quite a relief, then, to turn to an invigorating performance of Haydn’s forty-forth symphony, the Trauer. Vigorous, urgent from the outset, Lubbock was clearly in his element, Haydn’s Sturm und Drang proving as tragic as and perhaps more single-minded than a great deal of Mozart. It is a rarer thing than one might expect to have someone so thoroughly understand Haydn’s language, not least in the demonstration that rhetoric and phrasing are anything but antithetical. The small number of strings made the first movement in particular glance back to the Baroque, especially if one thought of, say, Antal Doráti here, but the motival working out impressed upon one how, even at this stage, Haydn looks forward to Beethoven. The extraordinary ending to the exposition – repeated – in which the music subsides upwards, as it were, peers even further forward into the future. Die Jakobsleiter perhaps? And the intensity of the recapitulation’s chromaticism was fully, but never indulgently, expressed. Tragedy was again to the fore in the canonic minuet: intense, but never hard-driven. Just occasionally, the strings could sound a little thin, but they bloomed in the major mode of the trio, balm to the ears, and properly Haydnesque, in that there was little or none of the sadness, the smiling through tears, that Mozart would typically have brought to such a transformation. The Adagio was warmly affecting: poised without archness, the strings’ vibrato sensitively judged. Once again, I found myself thinking what a fine feeling Lubbock had for Haydn’s style, for the transformation in subjectivity that had taken place since the Baroque. The Presto finale brought fire and again did not confuse that with driving too hard. Its structure was as clear as its emotional import. Haydn proved – as if he had to! – that he is just as capable as Gluck at expressing the true nobility of tragedy. Why is everyone not queuing up to perform this magnificent music? One quibble: the conductor’s whistling throughout the symphony became a little distracting. This nevertheless remained an excellent performance.