Sunday, July 15, 2007

Orchestral Enlightenment

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is twenty-one and celebrated on June 30 with a mammoth concert in the Royal Festival Hall. It began at seven o'clock and the Stage of Endarkenment did not occur until nearly eleven o'clock, by which time many good citizens of Penge, Norbury and Twickenham had gone to catch their last train home.

Pluralism was the order of the day: four conductors, two forte-pianists. five bassoons, two intervals, a choir, eight vocal soloists, half-a-dozen horns, the same number of trumpets and a full house of punters eager to join in the fun and applaud the consort of scene-shifters who necessarily took quite a time to set the stage. music-stands and music.

First came Purcell's delectable mini-Ode for St. Cecilia's Day, Richard Egarr directing. Next came Sir Roger Norrington with an electrically charged performance of a suite from the opera Dardanus 1739 by that quirky genius, Rameau; music that never goes quite where you think is going but you are delighted with where it does go, wilful but tender and exciting.

It was interesting to compare the two conductors: in the Purcell, Richard Egarr directing every rhythm, every phrase, it looked awfully fussy: Norrington nudged, pointed but it was definitely hands-off directing, as if he had done all the work at rehearsal, and was now just making sure that the players were doing what they had worked at, surely the way conducting ought to be.

For the next item, Egarr came back. this time partnering Robert Lewin in Mozart's Double Keyboard Concerto in E flat, K.565, the keyboards being those of fortepianos. Unamplified, forte chords sounded like somebody in the next room thrashing a birdcage, not a nice sound. After Mozart, a Haydn Symphony in C, La Roxelane, No.65, conductor Vladimir Jurowski - Glyndebourne's music director. The sound changed instantly; it was as if blurred vision suddenly became in focus, sounded stylish and was most enjoyable.

Drama took the stage, the spooky Glen Scene from Weber's Der Freisch├╝tz , vividly brought to life under the direction of Mark Elder, and equally vividly sung in character by the ever young Philip Langridge as Max with Clive Bayley as Kaspar. They acted it out like the old style melodrama it is. Finally came Rameau's exact contemporary, GeorgeFrideric Handel, his Fireworks music, than which there is no grander music in the repertory. It was half past ten before the first rocket sounded, an exciting moment with a big band, including those half-dozen horns, trumpets and a gaggle of bassoons. The visual aspect was good too, especially the horns with their double circles of brass, the main horn topped by a crook.

Sir Charles Mackerras at 8o is better than ever, has found a kind of Grand Old Man's serene maturity and what a week he had, Janacek last Sunday and Monday, the Sinfonietta with the Philharmonia, joyous and exciting (twelve trumpets, three tubas and all)and, next day, a thrilling Katya Kabanova on the stage of Covent Garden, the week ending with the Royal Fireworks Music.

So, Happy Birthday, O of the A of E, you played all six birthday concert works with your usual enthusiasm, virtuosic expertise and lack of vibrato. Can one really believe that absolutely no vibrato was used all those centuries ago? I would have given a lot to have a pennorth or two of throbbing strings. Without that spice, music sounds rather like an egg without salt, I find.

This was my first visit to the newly reopened Royal Festival Hall, cost £13 million. What's the difference? I could not lay my hand on my heart (or my ear) and say that I noticed any great smmx improvement.: More room between the rows of seats, yes, that is a boon for long-legged punters. The changes are considerable outside the auditorium; more room to perambulate and more space for food and drink. The bookshop is now part of a building between the Hall and the railway, a block with places to eat and drink which is better for us and, of course, better balancing the books. My usual watering hole has become a Ladies and the Ladies next door has become a Gents. Big deal!

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