Wednesday 13 May 2015

Britten Sinfonia/Hannigan - Mozart, Stravinsky, and Haydn, 6 May 2013

Barbican Hall

Mozart – Idomeneo: Overture
Stravinsky – The Rake’s Progress: Act I, Scene 3
Haydn – Symphony no.49 in F minor, ‘La Passione’
Mozart – La clemenza di Tito: Overture
Mozart – Concert Aria: ‘Bella mia fiamma, addio!... Resta, o cara’, KV 528
Stravinsky – Pulcinella: Suite

Britten Sinfonia
Barbara Hannigan (soprano, conductor)

A concert from Britten Sinfonia and Barbara Hannigan boded well – and more than fulfilled expectations. Programmed around the idea of ‘Stravinsky and neo-Classicism’, it was not in any sense didactic, but highly enjoyable, whilst at the same time giving opportunities for thought: in my case, reminding me that what I tend more often to think of Stravinsky aping, or rather inventing, ‘neo-Baroque’ manners is not always so.

The opening Overture to Idomeneo fairly took my breath away. Post-Gluckian grandeur and gravitas were from the outset the order of the day. Mozart’s hints of Salzburg luxuriance remained, albeit subordinated to dramatic purpose. The Britten Sinfonia may have been smallish in size, but it did not sound so. Hannigan’s direction was reassuringly ‘traditional’, for want of a better, less misleading word; but for the double-dotting, this might almost have been the late Sir Colin Davis at the helm, and I can give no greater praise than that. Splendidly grainy woodwind made their characterful presence felt. How I longed for the rest of the opera to follow!

But instead, a scene from The Rake’s Progress followed on immediately. Affinity or difference? We could decide, and indeed, the either/or, as so often, was found wanting. Perhaps perversely, perhaps with justification, I found Stravinsky, in the opening woodwind lines, all the more strongly himself, even perhaps closer to The Rite of Spring, than ever. Hannigan’s vocal crescendo – yes, she sang and conducted – put me in mind of what one hears from Jonas Kaufmann at the beginning of the second act of Fidelio. I am not sure I have heard a more sparkling despatch of ‘I go, I go to him’. Moreover, what can sometimes seem mere clever words here had true dramatic import. And what a difference antiphonally seated violins made too.

This may well have been the first time I have heard a live performance of Haydn’s Symphony no.49, ‘La Passione’, but then the same might be said of far too many of his symphonies. Surely no great composer, with the possible exception of Webern, is more hideously treated by modern concert life. The wait was certainly worth it, the first movement grief-laden, a true wordless drama, which of course is precisely what it should be. Excellent command of the longer line had one hearing forward to later Haydn works – I thought in particular of the Seven Last Words – and indeed beyond. Kinship with the composer’s Stabat Mater was also evident. Sturm und Drang characterised the second movement. Urgency was never mistaken for the merely hard-driven. Harmony remained at the root, if the pun may be forgiven, of all that transpired, expected or unexpected. The third movement remained dark in its onward trudge, its trio but a fleeting relief. In the finale, we went back, or rather forward, to Sturm und Drang. Motivic working seemed already to presage the Paris Symphonies. A splendidly full-blooded performance, not least from the strings, made me hungry for more Haydn from these superlative artists.

Mozart’s Overture to La clemenza di Tito opened the second half. It was noble and, yes, grandly neo-Classical. (Of all Mozart’s works, this has long seemed to me the most worthy of that tag.) Again, weight and drama encouraged, indeed incited each other. Counterpoint was wondrously clear – these players are the match of any of our symphony orchestras! – and, crucially, was despatched with a fine sense of direction. This was a thrilling, absorbing account: again, I am delighted to say, quite the best I have heard since Sir Colin. I cannot help but wonder whether Hannigan should turn her thoughts to conducting a Mozart opera. She certainly has the voice and agility for singing one of the plum roles, as the performance of Bella mia fiamma, addio! made clear. (Hannigan has sung Fiordiligi, but I, alas, have yet to hear her do so.) The Britten Sinfonia strings were wondrously alert, as this lovely aria, woodwind from Elysium, made its way through typically extreme chromaticism to resolution. A taste in miniature of things to come? Let us hope so.

Finally, the Pulcinella Suite; I dare say to ask for a vocal contribution would simply have been too greedy. The Overture was an object lesson, especially from soloists, in the illustration of Paul Griffiths’s memorable observation that Pulcinella is less a composition than a ‘way of hearing’ – although, as so often with Stravinsky, one could with almost equal justification argue quite the contrary. There followed a Serenata that was graceful to a degree in its slightly wistful lilt. In the sequence thereafter, I occasionally, to my surprise, found a slight want of the utmost rhythmic definition, but colours remained both bold and subtle. By the time of the Tarantella, there was certainly not the least slackness. Mozartian Hamoniemusik seemed more strongly echoed in a number of movements than I could recall previously hearing. (Hannigan did not always conduct.) The strange apotheosis of the final movement resonated in startling fashion; nor was it rushed. It made for a splendid conclusion to a splendid concert.