Beethoven: Triple Concerto; Louise Farrenc: Symphony No 3
Insula Orchestra, Laurence Equilbey
The Barbican. 8 March 2018
A phrase that I occasionally use when reviewing a revival of music by a little-known composer is that the composer was “plucked from well-deserved obscurity”. That is a phrase that definitely cannot be used to describe the music of Louise Farrenc (1804-1875), the focus of the Barbican concert give, appropriately, on International Women’s Day by the Insula Orchestra, all wearing suffragette ribbons, apparently made by the same company that made the original purple, white, and green colours. Born six months after Berlioz, she was a pioneering French composer, pianist, and teacher. Although she was highly esteemed during her lifetime, her impact was almost certainly reduced by not managing to write an opera, a requisite for Parisian composers in her time. Her work was almost entirely forgotten after her death until very recent years, when the long-awaited recognition of female composers and musicians led to some recordings and concerts of her composition.
Studying, working, composing and teaching at a time when the female contribution to arts, and life in general, was given little prominence, Farrenc resolutely ploughed her own course as a teacher and composer. At the time, females were not allowed to join the composition class at the Paris Conservatoire, so she took private lessons with the teacher. But she eventually became Professor of Piano at the same institution, remaining as such for 30 years, although only achieving parity of pay with her male colleagues for the last 20, and that after campaigning. Continue reading
Boxwood & Brass
The Arts Club, Waterloo. 18 October 2017
In a dual exercise of launching their 2017/18 programmes combined with trying out a possible venue for small-scale musical events, the innovative wind-music group Boxwood & Brass held a ‘Harmoniemusik Discover Evening’ in the 1901 Arts Club (in the fascinating hinterland of Waterloo station), a former schoolmasters house now converted to an events venue in the style of a late 19th century saloon. The six members of Boxwood & Brass played music by Mozart and Beethoven, starting with their own arrangement of the opening Allegro of Mozart’s 1782 Serenade in C minor (K.388, aka Nacht Musique), the two original oboe parts redistributed amongst the pairs of clarinets, horns and bassoons of their evening’s line-up. Mozart had made his own arrangement, for string quintet. This curious work is some way from the usual style of a Serenade, being far more musically intense and written in a minor key. In the intimate space, the complexity of the writing was prominent, as was the distinctive colour of the Harmoniemusik instruments. Continue reading
The Harmonie in Beethoven’s Vienna
Boxwood & Brass
St John’s, Smith Square. 20 February 2017
The words Harmonie, or Harmoniemusik (translatable as ‘windband music’), are little known in the UK, although they are important aspects of the late Classical and early Romantic musical eras in continental Europe. With arguable roots in earlier military bands, the formation of wind instrument consorts started to grow into prominence from about 1750, and reached its zenith in the 1780s in Vienna. It became the preserve of aristocratic households, and its decline around 1830 was a symptom of the decline in aristocratic resources in post-Napoleonic Europe. Emperor Joseph II formalised the line-up of his own court Harmonie to pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns together with a 16′, usually string, bass. This was the nine-strong line-up of Boxwood & Brass for this concert, although they also perform in the various other Harmonie formats.
It is the ambition of Boxwood & Brass to bring the extensive Harmonie repertoire to a wider UK audience. To that end, they combine their performing and musical skills with an impressive academic and musicological background. Several are linked to the University of Huddersfield Centre for Performance Research and many already have, or are approaching, doctorates in music. Their recent début CD, Franz Tausch: Music for a Prussian Salon (reviewed here) featured original compositions for Harmonie. This St John’s, Smith Square concert included one original composition together with two examples of the important genre of arrangements for Harmonie. Continue reading
BBC Prom 17: Berlioz, Beethoven, Brahms
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (SWR)
Sir Roger Norrington, Robert Levin
Royal Albert Hall, 28 July 2016
Few in the audience would have realised what a poignant and emotional, event this Prom was to be until after the encore, when the leader Natalie Chee took a microphone and addressed the packed Royal Albert Hall to explain that, due to spending cuts, the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra is to merge with the SWR Symphony Orchestra in September, and that this was their very last concert. Founded in the dark days of 1945 this distinguished orchestra has built an enormous international reputation, not least during the years from 1998 to 2011 when Sir Roger Norrington was their chief conductor, bringing his noted ‘historically informed’ performance practice to this modern instrument orchestra, producing a distinctive style – the ‘Stuttgart sound’. The two merging orchestras are both under the auspices of Südwestrundfunk (South West Radio), the public broadcaster for Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, and have very different repertoires and styles. It was entirely appropriate that Roger Norrington, now their Conductor Emeritus, was the conductor for their final concert.
Berlioz’s sparkling and witty overture to Beatrice and Benedict opened the evening, with Norrington’s characteristic attention to detail being at the forefront. Continue reading
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 Continue reading
Garsington Opera opened its 25th anniversary season with a revival of Fidelio (13 July 2014), first heard (albeit not by me) in 2009, the opera company’s final year in Garsington village. Now planted just beyond the ha-ha of the Getty’s Wormsley estate, the extraordinary new opera house is a slightly incongruous setting for the bleakness of Fidelio’s prison, although it was a delight to see the prisoners brought into the (fading) light and out over the bridge into the ornamental gardens. But Fidelio remains a troublesome work. The elevated ideals that inspired Beethoven compositional struggles are marred by compromise of structure and plot, not least the rather inconsequential love scenes between Marzelline and Jaquino. Fidelio is frequently used as a vehicle for the political aspirations of the director, thereby overlying additional layers of complexity, usually very far from the original plot. But here, John Cox’s production plays it commendably straight, supported by period costumes and a neutral staging.
The character portrayals are convincing, notable in a young Fidelio/Leonore, sung with absolute integrity by the delightful Rebecca von Lipinski – a most impressive singer and actor, and equally believable in male and female incarnations. Stephen Richardson’s Rocco contrasted power with compassion – a nice twist is that it seems pretty clear that he knows exactly who Fidelio is. Peter Wedd’s Florestan dominated the second half, the sombre mood aided as the setting evening sun of the first half faded. Joshua Bloom’s Minister contrasted with the pantomime antics of Darren Jeffery’s Pizarro. Douglas Boyd conducted the house orchestra, playing modern instruments, with a fine sense of style and pace.