Compulsive Lyres and Fowl Play
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Sir Roger Norrington
Royal Festival Hall. 14 February 2016
Haydn: Symphony No.83 (La Poule); Mozart: Concerto in C for flute & harp, K.299; Joseph de Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George: Overture, L’amant anonyme; Beethoven: Symphony No.2.
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Department for Thinking up Silly Concert Titles had a field day with this one, coming up with ‘Compulsive Lyres and Fowl Play’. Under the benevolent direction of Sir Roger Norrington, the OAE’s programme was centred on the fascinating character Joseph de Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George (b1745), the son of a wealthy French plantation owner in Guadeloupe, and his African slave. Educated back in France from the age of 7, he first became known as a fencer, graduating from the Academy of fencing and horsemanship aged 21 and somehow collecting the title of chevalier (knight) on the way. Quite how he achieved his skills in music is not known, but the composers Lolli and Gossec had already dedicated works to him before he was 21. He quickly became one of the leading Parisian violinists and orchestra leaders. He briefly lived in the same house as Mozart (the mansion of his mentor, the Duke of Orléans in Paris), and was leader of the enormous Masonic Loge Olympique orchestra, for which Haydn wrote his Paris Symphonies.
It was one of those Paris Symphonies that opened the programme, No 83 in G minor, the so-called La Poule, nicknamed after the hen-like clucking second theme of the first movement. Norrington’s attention to detail was evident from the start, as was his delightfully light-touch approach to direction, a mere flick of the hand being enough to set the players off on a new course. His interesting arrangement of the orchestra, with the woodwind (and later, brass) positioned to either side of the strings, rather than behind, led to some impressive antiphonal effects, the violins, positioned left and right, leading to a lovely conversation between them in the second movement Andante which, incidentally also builds on the dotted note motif heard in the opening Allegro spiritoso. Rather surprisingly, there was a lack of consistency in the use of repeats, the first two movements with only the first repeat, the final movement have both repeats, the latter rather confusingly reducing the effect of Haydn’s rather neat cadence.
During Mozart’s rather complicated time in Paris, he taught the harp-playing daughter of the flute-playing Count of Guines (both of whom impressed Mozart with their playing), a partnership that led to his Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra (K299), written before he apparently fell out with the pair. In what was either homage, or a take-off, of French musical style, Mozart’s little ornamental twists and turns and rather fanciful motifs were explored beautifully by Lisa Beznosiuk and Frances Kelly. Mozart apparently didn’t like either instrument, but proved expert at exploring the contrasting textures of flute and harp, notably in the extended Andantino with its yearning melody. Not surprisingly, there were several moments when the two soloists were left to their own devices, including cadenzas towards the end of all three movements. As in her contributions to the Haydn Symphony, Lisa Beznosiuk added some delightful little ornaments.
Le Chevalier de Saint-George’s 1780 opera L’Amant anonyme was the most popular of his stage works. The three movement Overture is presumably typical of his musical style, rather slight by the standards of the Beethoven to come, but nonetheless typical of the Parisian style of the day after a century of decline of ‘serious’ musical style. Building his melodic lines on little motifs (in a rather Baroque fashion), this was a piece well worth hearing – but perhaps not too often.
Roger Norrington (pictured) introduced Le Chevalier’s piece, noting his links with Haydn and Mozart, and describing the Overture as representing just the sort of 18th century music that Beethoven swept away, not least with the 2nd Symphony, which completed the evening. Perhaps the least well-known of Beethoven’s symphonies, Norrington’s reading would have converted any doubters as to its importance and musical quality, not least in comparison with the 3rd, Eroica, composed shortly afterwards. Described at the time as a “crass monster” and “a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die, but writhing in its last agonies and, in the fourth movement, bleeding to death”, Norrington produced a vigorous, punchy and intensely powerful performance, pushing the OAE players to the limit in several passages. It was written just after his despairing Heiligenstadt Testament, during which he contemplated suicide. Had he done so, after writing this Symphony, it would stand as one of the highlights of western music. After his jovial approach to the earlier pieces in the programme, Norrington took this with the seriousness that it deserves, although this was one piece where his encouragement of applause between movements was misplaced.
It was asking for trouble to give Roger Norrington a swivel chair. Slowly spinning round on it, he took every opportunity to engage the audience, generally finishing a movement by swinging round to the audience and unashamedly encouraging applause. There are very few conductors who can get away with such antics, but Norrington is certainly one of them. Although there is an element of look-at-me, there is a gentle self-mockery in his manner and an endearing charm in his little grins to the audience. And it does make the audience feel involved.
The concert was preceded by an interesting panel debate exploring the achievements of the period performance movement and answering the question “Has period performance done its job?” with a resounding No! from the panel.