AAM @ 30 – 27 November

Trumpet Overture, Op.101
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.20
Clarinet Concerto No.2 in E flat, Op.74
Symphony No.4 in D (original version, 1841)

Antony Pay (clarinet)

The Academy of Ancient Music
Christopher Hogwood

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 27 November, 2003
Venue: St. John’s, Smith Square, London

At the excellent pre-concert talk, “Mendelssohn and Friends”, Christopher Hogwood portrayed the music of Mendelssohn and his circle as some kind of last frontier or taboo to be broken, rather as if admitting to a love of Mendelssohn’s music were now the musical equivalent of admitting to “a love that dare not speak its name”. For the Academy of Ancient Music, 30 years old, its foray into playing repertoire from later in the 19th-century represents a departure.

Two fascinating facts to emerge from Hogwood’s talk were that Mendelssohn was actually an inveterate reviser of his own music – a far cry from our image of the gilded youth whose music sprang fully formed onto the page – and secondly that he was not the best judge of his own output; he never foresaw the Italian Symphony being published and in fact thought so little of it that he went so far as to claim to a friend that the only bars worth saving were the first five (the accompanying figure on the wind before the tune makes an appearance).

The concert’s first half brought two welcome rarities, Mendelssohn’s Trumpet Overture (of which none of us present at the talk admitted to having heard live) and the Fourth Symphony of Danish composer Niels Gade (1817-90). The Overture, written more or less contemporaneously with the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, does not deserve its total neglect. Especially when played by a ’historically aware’ group, as here, its quiet central sections contain sudden moments of real magic as woodwinds call softly over plangent strings. Elsewhere the strings made light work of the energetic writing (which would probably sound too strenuous on the ’modern’ instruments). The overture’s final bar catches the audience unaware – trumpets and timpani end on E rather than the home C major.

Gade got his first big break when his Ossian Overture was judged by Mendelssohn to be the outright winner of a composition competition in Copenhagen and, after Mendelssohn’s untimely death, for a brief period Gade became his successor as Director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus concerts. The Fourth Symphony – Hogwood has recorded all 8 for Chandos – is pure delight, especially the soulful Andante and the compact, lilting Scherzo. Here it received as good a performance as one could reasonably hope to hear, the textures benefiting enormously from characterful wind and brass.

After the interval we were on more familiar ground, although there remained a twist – we heard the Schumann in its rarely heard original version of 1841. Beforehand, Antony Pay’s performance of the Weber had claims to bethe highlight of the concert. Pay recorded both concertos with the OAE nearly 20 years ago. His playing still has a contagious enthusiasm that carries all before it. Like watching a man on a tightrope cross Niagara Falls, this was a high-wire act, on occasion Pay’s fingers threatening to run ahead of himself in ever increasing feats of prestidigitation! He likes to live dangerously and how true to Weber, especially when deeper things were touched on in the melancholy slow movement.

Schumann’s first thoughts, from 1841, of his Symphony No.4 – much preferred by Brahms to the later, usually played 1851 revision (to Clara Schumann’s intense irritation) – found Pay resuming his seat as principal clarinet (how often do you see a soloist return to his orchestral chair once his solo spot is over?) and Hogwood at his most hyperactive. The slow movement apart, the three other movements are marked respectively Allegro di molto, Presto, and Allegro vivace (culminating in Prestissimo). In this more lightly scored version, Hogwood’s extreme tempos worked a treat, some roughness in the playing aside. Special praise to the finely played oboe of Katharina Speckelsen and Pavlo Beznosiuk’s violin in the Romanza.

For an encore, a tenderly phrased Entr’acte from Schubert’s Rosamunde.

Long may the Academy of Ancient Music continue to delight us.

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