Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Bookended by brilliance…

Having just experienced the most fabulous ending to a most (well, mostly) fabulous evening, how to describe the equally astonishing opening? Well, I’m going to cheat, and recycle the programme notes:

The title of this work, from 1775, refers to the the composer’s ‘name day’ – when people in many religious countries commemorate the day of the year that is associated with their given name (often a saint’s feast day): as we might our birthday. And Salieri celebrates in style!
     The first bars set the mood perfectly: a cascading Haydnesque fanfare from oboes through horns and trumpets to full orchestra. I can honestly think of no more exciting way to begin a concert of late 18th century music! Admittedly, this first movement feels more like an overture than a traditional symphonic opener – opera was Salieri’s real forte – but the orchestration alone demonstrates that here we have a composer who is extremely underrated, and yet possessed real, sparkling finesse.

Salieri? Oh, you mean the guy who poisoned Mozart? Well: yes… and no! He is the composer you’re thinking of; but it is extremely unlikely that he did such a dirty deed. “Indeed,” as it says in the introduction to the programme, “in later life, these two great musicians were, if not friends, peers who worked together, and had a great deal of respect for each other.”

Anyway, the work I’m rabbiting on about is the older composer’s extremely entertaining Sinfonia in D major ‘Il giorno onomastico’, written when he was in his mid-twenties. It may be more “traditional” than an equivalent work by Mozart (or, say, Haydn… natch); but it bursts with just as much joy and inventiveness. There are seductive touches – especially as rendered by the Orchestra of the Swan, last night – with opportunities for every section to shine: particularly, in the opening Allegro, the wind and brass.

But it is the richness and variation of instrumental texture which is most impressive – hinting, occasionally, at the future masterpieces of two of his most famous pupils: Beethoven and Schubert. Haydn and Mozart may, sometimes, have been limited by the courtly resources available to them – but, for whatever reason, Salieri manages, here, to escape those confines: and the results are enchanting!

The beautiful, pastoral, almost balletic Larghetto – an aria commencing with muted violins soaring over pizzicato double-basses; followed by a transcendent woodwind trio – shows just how adroit (and ravishing) Salieri’s instrumentation could be. As does (however differently) the bombastic, yet courtly Minuetto – a short movement of great contrasts: with a thoughtful, strings-only [almost Elgarian, here, with its bassoon reinforcement] Trio section.

But it is the finale in which the composer really goes to town. And, even if the concert’s ending was unbeatable (which it truly was), Salieri at least did his – indeed anybody’s – utmost to produce something just as memorable. And it was obvious that the orchestra were having the time of their lives proving it!

And yet the precision on display was exemplary. In some ways this could be regarded as music that is ‘easy’ to listen to (“extremely entertaining”, I said). But, pay attention; prick up your ears – whilst keeping your eyes fixed on the performers – and you would, nay should, imagine that such apparent simplicity would simply evaporate in a cloud of effort. This is complex stuff indeed – on the page… – but OOTS’ command is such that you would, could, never know.

At one point, their incredibly subtle touch transformed – and instantly… – into even more of the boisterousness that had so marked the first movement. And the last few bars were just as thrilling as the first. Are we there yet? Well, yes: several times. And all utterly spot on. An orchestra at the very top of its game… – yet, somehow, getting better all the time….

What followed was, possibly, my least favourite Mozart piano concerto – never quite fulfilling its scintillating opening promise… – no.13 in C major, K415. (Lucky for some, perchance?) Despite yet more wonderful playing from OOTS (and my veneration of said composer), it simply would not engage me, last night. (Sometimes, these things just blummin’ well happen. The planets just won’t align. The moon remains behind its cloud.) I will therefore – thoughtful soul that I am – let my review stand for a week: until having attended a repeat of the concert, in Cheltenham Town Hall.

I have two things to say, though, before I move on. Firstly, I prefer my Mozart concertos (like my artistic directors’ pates) sparse. And I think – indeed, I know – I would have preferred the music as delineated by David in his pre-concert talk: with minimal strings; and nothing else (well, oboes and horns, maybe). The richness – so magically deployed in the opening Salieri (as well as the Haydn symphony which completed the evening) seemed ill-suited, here. To me, anyway.

Secondly… I like my white wine chilled to a crisp: with crystalline layers of depth; and (tasting) notes you can drive a bus between. Sideways.

Confused? Well, let’s just say that I have been spoiled, in recent times, by the almost-unmatchable pairing of Donohoe and Roscoe: both of whom make Mozart’s piano parts sing with the same apparent ease that OOTS apply so readily to their accompaniments. And that, maybe, just maybe, there was a little too much right pedal? Or perhaps I really was just having a bad half-hour? Perhaps you really do – as Donohoe himself once proclaimed – have to be sixty-five (which he isn’t…). We shall see.

And then there was the matter of “the compulsory encore” – an opuscule, should you so wish. (I really, really don’t want to tread on anyone’s toes, here… – and it’s always nice to see soloists return, Donohoe‑style, to sit in the audience after the interval. But I suppose I am concerned that my lack of engagement has implications for performances and premières, next season. And that troubles me deeply….)

In their programme note, the composers (who were also the soloists) described this as “a trip through the ages and fashions of musical history” – but it was not a leisurely journey: rather a fervid, accelerating, high-powered steam-train through the most lush and imposing mountain ranges of Europe. (Picture postcards to the usual address, please.) There was no denying the cumulative energy: generated not just through the repetition and variation of an already-familiar theme, but also in the orchestral forces amassed; the passion of the performers; and the contrasts between the translucent texture of the guitar; the more sonorous piano; and all the subtleties and forcefulness – and every micro-step inbetween – that David and OOTS always bring to the stage.

One could therefore not fault the performance, per se. But there seemed, integral to the score, to be an overt reliance on almost identical harmonies, as well as on the motif itself – “the original ‘La Folia’ theme – an ancient ground bass of eight notes that dates from at least the early Renaissance, but is probably much older: D‑A-D-C-F-C-D-A.” Its overall effect, therefore – for this jaded critic – was of a high-class movie theme. And, to put it bluntly, there was not enough variation in the variations.

Neither do I think – surrounded by giants of the late eighteenth century – that it slotted easily into the programme. As a late-Romantic exhibition piece, perhaps – and nestled amongst such – it may have felt more at home. But it felt like an interloper, here. This is not to say that conductor and orchestra treated it any differently to any other piece they perform. They gave their all….

And, for all my cynicism, it went down well in the hall. But those I trust expressed similar reservations – implicitly, explicitly, or just through their body language….

So, one final comment: which is to say that Rachmaninov demonstrated vividly and imaginatively what could be done with a simple theme – how much variety and pizzazz can be achieved. This simply didn’t. (And I truly am concerned….)

Fortunately, we had an interval. So I sat outside the ArtsHouse, letting the cold autumn air inflate my lungs and invade my weary bones; and the sounds of the Mop Fair cleanse my soul. (It was almost like wrapping myself in the kindness of strange, random samples of Charles Ives; or Steve Reich’s intriguing phasing.) And that escape from the supposedly-sublime was just the tonic….

As they proved in their previous concert, David and OOTS’ utter belief in Haydn – in his obvious charismatic genius – is audible in every single note and phrase; each change of dynamic and tempo. It is as if the man’s unique combination of technique, invention, emotion and humour – as well as his many years writing for (and commanding) such forces – has somehow permeated every cell of their bodies; or, more likely, corresponds perfectly with their own ultra-communicative ethos. Haydn would have loved the Orchestra of the Swan as much as they obviously do him. (And David’s supposition that he would be the perfect composer-in-residence may be unprovable. But, of course, he is right. Who else would do such a fine job; and then be such a laugh in the pub, afterwards?)

Yes, these transcendent players are the masters and mistresses of repertoire from Telemann to Tabakova – but there is an indefinable, additional sparkle to their playing (perhaps encouraged by this anniversary season’s concentration on earlier repertoire; on works written for the chamber orchestras that were then de rigueur in princely courts across the continent…). Never ever out of their element, they just seem, somehow, more in it, at the moment! And nothing illustrates this more keenly than their rendition of last night’s Haydn symphony – no.92, nicknamed the ‘Oxford’ (because it wasn’t composed there…).

From out of the opening, misty Adagio introduction, through to the joyous, life-affirming last chord, this was a performance of dewy-eyed, tingly-spined, bumped-goose perfection: passion and precision flowing forth equally from every single instrument (including – and how to say this without recourse to what could easily pass for euphemism…? – Maestro Curtis’ magic wand…)!

The delicacy of the Adagio cantabile was astounding (yup, even for OOTS): subtle gradations of colour; almost imperceptible shades of rubato, and those stunning, proprietary you-could-hear-a-feather-drop lacunae as the movement drew to a close behind the most delicate of gauze veils. (Special mention must be made, here, of player-of-the-night Nick Bhattacharjee’s transcendent flute-playing – especially those magical first, soaring notes… – supported by Francesca Moore-Bridger and Paul Cott’s superb-yet-subtle horn calls; Victoria Brawn and Louise Braithwaite’s as-always spiritous oboes; and the beauteous tones of Philip Brookes and Rebecca Eldridge’s bassoons. Of course, such is the orchestra’s transcendence that one could name each and every single member, here – and deservedly so….)

Something of this “delicacy” carried on into the Menuetto – although, here, of course, there is Haydn’s wit to contend with, as well: especially in the wondrous syncopations of the central Trio (which I am humming as I write). Never too heavy; never too stressed; always tempered with lightness; and giving this audience member not one single chance to remove the tear-stains amassed earlier. If the ‘Mercury’ symphony (which certainly wasn’t composed there…) left we the audience “with one big smile spread all over our faces”, then this draped an even larger one over every single ounce of our beings.

(Of course, much of this responsibility is the composer’s – his maturity, his expertise and years of continual development appearing to have reached the summit of his personal Mount Olympus when this symphony was produced…. And you can argue all day with me that the final dozen ‘London’ symphonies are superior… – but I believe this is at least their equal!)

That “delicacy” appeared to have also infused the finale… – and yet the whole (perfectly-paced) Presto seemed to just build and build, even as it ebbed and flowed. The timpani and trumpets’ first entries were so marvellously subdued – yet sharp as a pin – luring us into believing that this was how it must continue; that this was as exciting (and stunningly so) as it could get. Pauses, and whispers from the strings (oozing impeccability from every pore), also deceiving.

But – remember – this is Haydn: always out to surprise (even in his most profound, tear-jerking moments). And the “build” – no matter how quiet the playing – is always there: bubbling gently beneath the surface, waiting, waiting, waiting… for the composer’s permission finally to be given to unleash the hounds of contagious happiness. We may feel as if we’re dancing, whirling with characters from the commedia dell’arte – and with more than enough momentum to get us all the way home… – but this is so, so much, so much more sublime.

And David controlled it all to perfection! (Of course.) Just as you think one thing is going to happen, something else does. (Of course.) Including the ending. Oh, Papa Joseph: what a wonderful tease you are! (Not only does he know every trick in the book; he invented most of them!) Magnificence defined! (But always with that wry sideways gaze.)

Let’s have all one-hundred-and-six played back-to-back, please! I know there wouldn’t be one dull moment. Not a single jottette of boredom. Haydn may not have invented the symphony – nor are OOTS the first orchestra to play what he created… – but he stamped his authority on the form like no-one else before or since. And so do they.

As the maestro said in his introduction to the previous concert – having reversed its printed order (note to self: never write programme notes for the man…) – any Haydn symphony deserves to end any evening of music (or words to that effect). No-one does it better… – well, not on this gob-smacking evidence, anyway! “Finis Laus Deo”, indeed.

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