OAE – Esterhazy to London: Haydn’s Liberation

The Farewell Song, Trachten will ich nicht auf Erden
Symphony No.92 in G (Oxford)
L’anima del filosofo – Overture; Al tuo seno fortunato
Symphony No.96 in D (Miracle)
Die Schöpfung (The Creation) – Nun beut die Fleur

Simon Callow (narrator)

Martene Grimson (soprano)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Frans Brüggen

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 September, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Simon Callow, in full 18th-century regalia, and with a convincing accent, and to his own script, gave a witty portrayal of the German-born and London-based impresario and musician Johann Peter Salomon, the man who brought Franz Joseph Haydn to London and who commissioned from him the twelve ‘London’ symphonies (numbers 93-104). Indeed, with subdued lighting and Callow’s stage presence, it was easy to forget that we were at a concert and that we had actually strayed into an intriguing one-man show about Salomon. It worked very well and Callow’s assumption him – he was on stage throughout, listening from the side of the platform while the music was played – continued to ‘add value’ between the performances.

And what fine renditions graced the concert, all of which served notice as to Haydn’s questing genius and, however familiar the music, his continuing ability to surprise. The ordering of the programme was refreshingly unusual – three vocal items book-ending and pivoting proceedings, and with the symphonies as substantial filling. After Salomon’s lengthy, but not overlong, opening scene-setting – with some well-aimed humour involving security measures and Polish plumbers – Martene Grimson and Alastair Ross (on the fortepiano) gave us ‘The Farewell Song’, a setting of pious words made, it is thought, on 14 December 1790, the day before Haydn set off for England. A heartfelt number, Martene Grimson shaped it eloquently.

Both symphonies, one of those from Haydn’s first ‘London’ set, and one from just outside London (!), were given articulate accounts under the seated Frans Brüggen’s genial direction. What was especially noticeable was the sheer variety of the music, its clarity of thought, its imaginative twists and turns, and its sudden switches of mood. Brüggen’s relaxed pacing, and the lucidity and perfect balancing of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, were constant joys as the romance of the music was sought out.

The opening of the ‘Oxford’ (where it seems the version of it with added trumpets and drums was first heard) was expectant, and the Adagio second movement was soulful and explosive by turns. Both symphonies’ finales were moderate, to advantage, detail and contrapuntal clarity teased out, and enlivened by sparkling playing and ear-catching ‘whispering’ dynamics. The so-called ‘Miracle’ (the nickname should append Symphony No.102 and concerns a falling chandelier and no casualties) enjoyed fully its elegance and the trumpets and drums flare-ups. A trio for flute and two oboes stood out in the ‘Oxford’ as did Anthony Robson’s frolicsome oboe solo in the Trio of the ‘Miracle’; and what a characterful sound the trumpets made; nothing steely here. But, these are invidious citations.

Opening the second half, before the ‘Miracle’ was played, was the overture to and an aria from an opera written by Haydn while in London in 1791, based on the Orfeo legend. Save that the theatre it was intended for burnt down and, then, when rehearsals did get under way, the king banned the production. (The first night was in 1951!) The overture, its quite dramatic and rather Mozartean opening leading to a quaint melody for the oboe, turned out to be a fragment that Haydn penned to open Salomon’s own opera “Windsor Castle” (‘Vindsor Castle’). There followed, despite the recalcitrant pages of Brüggen’s score, a coloratura showpiece that Martene Grimson delivered with pinpoint accuracy if a little too carefully … all rather showy for Haydn!

An excerpt from “The Creation” closed this uplifting evening, Grimson’s gentle shaping a delight and an extended trill for woodwinds standing out. All in all, the OAE’s new season couldn’t have got off to a better start – and in a year of ‘Mozart mania’, that Haydn had an evening to himself was apposite.

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