LPO Isle of Noises: Handel & Purcell

Isle of Noises
London Philharmonic Orchestra
The Schütz Choir, Sir Roger Norrington
Royal Festival Hall, 30 January 2019

Handel: Suites from The Water Music 
Purcell: Dido and Aeneas

The London Philharmonic Orchestra opened their year-long series Isle of Noises (a celebration of British music) with a concert that, by all the normal conventions of concert programming over the past 50 years or so, shouldn’t have happened. Since the early music period-instrument revolution, and as the pioneering work of the early period specialists took root, most traditional orchestras took fright and stopped performing any music from Mozart or before. Gone were the days of a Mozart concerto opening a concert that would finish with Mahler. In recent years, some of those same early music specialists have enthused modern instrument players and orchestras, by far the most prominent being Sir Roger Norrington, perhaps most notably for his work with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra.

For this concert in the Royal Festival Hall, their LPOs London home, they fielded a much-reduced orchestra. There were about 40 for the first half Handel including a strings line-up of 8, 8, 6, 4, 4, and fewer for the following Purcell (strings 6, 5, 4, 5, 0). It is worth noting that just a few days earlier they had performed Die Walküre! They opened with most of the movements from the F major Water Music Suite followed by the complete five-movement Suite. The playing was crisp and articulate and generally, as Norrington put it in his pre-concert talk, left out “the wobbly bits”. Of course, with modern instruments and non-gut strings, the violin tone was edgier than that of period instrument performance, and the initial attack of the notes was more pronounced than would be the case with gut strings. But it didn’t take long to get used to the sound – and it was far closer to the currently accepted ‘period instrument’ sound than many of the modern instrument orchestras that ventured into the early repertoire back in the 60/70s. Although the violinists used long modern bows, I noticed that they were not using the full length, in recognition of the shorter Baroque bow.

The LPO players had clearly absorbed Norrington’s notions of period phrasing and articulation, and the Baroque concept of building melodic lines through short motifs, rather than the long phrases of later periods. Norrington was in his element, often leaving the musicians to just get on with it. He is my sort of conductor, self-effacing and sensitive to the people who actually have to produce the music.  As usual, he would swing round in his chair to engage the audience, not least to signal when applause was due. The LPO players were joined by two specialist early music theorbo players and a harpsichord player (Jakob Lindberg & Jørg Skogmo, and Stephen Devine) all three making very significant contributions in Dido and Aeneas.

The Overture to the F major Suite (usually and confusingly, as in this case, listed as three separate pieces, as opposed to what I tend to think is a single multi-sectioned work), featured an elegant oboe solo from Ian Hardwick in the Adagio e staccato, adding appropriate twiddles to the bare bones of Handel’s score. The oboe is one of the instruments where the difference between the modern and a baroque version is very noticeable, and it was in this case, not least because of some slight “wobbly bits”. The horns, although modern, managed to portray some of the edge-of-the-seat tonal brilliance and whoops in the Allegros of the final section of the Overture (and earnt a round of applause for it), while the two oboes and bassoons made an impressive sound in the central Andante.

The Dido was semi-staged to the extent that the singers interacted with each as appropriate to the scene, and the two male roles were costumed, Aeneas (Benjamin Appl)  in an elegant nautical jacket, and the Sorceress/Spirit (Edward Grint) in a monk-like hoddie. There was no credited movement director, so I assume that the singers and Norrington devised it themselves – and very effective it was in its simplicity. The singing was excellent from all, although I did wonder if Dido was as fully emersed in the vocal style, and the English language, as her home-grown colleagues. Miriam Allan and Martha McLorinan were late stand-ins as the Second Woman and First Witch, but were unfortunately not listed in the programme and, surprisingly there was no addendum. Lucy Crowe was Belinda and Hugo Hymas stepped out from The Schütz Choir to be a brief Sailor, mercifully playing it straight rather than going through the usual high-jinks.

The choir encircled the rear of the orchestra, making particularly effective contributions in the more delicate moments, for example in Cupid only. The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available here for 30 days since the broadcast. The BBC’s recorded sound is not a warm as I experienced it in the hall, enhancing my above comments about tone. It also exposes some slight intonation issues early on which I either didn’t really detect or mentally ignored, in the acoustic of the hall itself.

Although the early music period instrument still has a long way to go, it was encouraging to see how a mainstream modern instrument orchestra can so easily understand the concepts and playing styles. It says a lot about the versatility and willingness to continually learn of present-day musicians.