OAE – Listening in Paris: A Musical Revolution

Marche funèbre à l’occasion de la mort du Général Hoche
Symphonie Concertante in G major on Patriotic Airs
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

Boris Garlitsky & Daniel Garlitsky (violins)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 24 November, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s “Listening In Paris” four-concert series concluded to the sounds of revolution and left us at the point of no return – Beethoven’s boundary-breaking Eroica Symphony. The Eroica had been well prepared for. Paisiello’s funeral march for one of Napoleon’s generals (dead at 29 from either a disease or through being murdered by poison for being a traitor … nobody knows) seemed quite light on its feet in this performance and with these instruments, but the dark woodwinds, bass drum strokes (using a bunch of twigs) and the hollow timbre of a military drum conveyed a real sense of ceremony.

And, then, Monsieur Davaux (seemingly a man very adept at changing sides pre and post the French Revolution) provided some light entertainment with his ‘patriotic’ concerto, the best known ‘air’ (to us) being “La Marseillaise” – for its first appearance, on oboes and horns, the musicians stood to play – and gave Garlitsky père et fils the opportunity to display some lovely violin playing (Boris joining in with the first violins and Daniel the seconds – antiphonal, of course). Boris’s enjoyment was there to be seen, his playing top-notch and seasoned, and if Daniel was more reticent, his tone was especially pleasing; he’s a young musician to look out for.

This was my third Eroica of the week (and Boris Garlitsky, normally leading the London Philharmonic, had led the LSO for the first of them, under Bernard Haitink). All three conductors (the other was Russell Keable) observed the first movement repeat (not welcome to this listener these days, on the grounds of structure) and employed, appositely, antiphonal violins. If one were indulging in league tables (which are only really worthwhile for sporting events) then Vladimir Jurowski and Keable would take an ‘equal first’. Keable dug the most into the music’s humanity. Jurowski conducted a swift, visceral account, one especially well judged in dynamic contrasts, and with perfect balances, the latter due to the ‘period’ instruments themselves; what joy to hear horns and trumpets play out without dominating or sounding harsh.

Yet, we now know the Napoleon-inspired Eroica (such dedication eventually rejected or, at least, turned on its head) through all manner of interpretations, the music having evolved over 200 years to be a great masterpiece. Going back, as it were, to a reading such as the OAE gave here, leaves an in-two-minds impression. I would probably argue most with the tempos, however ‘right’ they may be, while saluting the commitment, energy and mastery of the OAE’s musicians and also acknowledging that Jurowski kept each movement whole and inevitable. And timings are no help: from the OAE the ‘funeral march’ came in at 11 minutes but never sounded rushed, whereas Haitink, at 14 minutes, seemed inconsequential, and Keable (15) the most ‘relevant’. (Colin Davis, Eschenbach, and Rostropovich, have notched up 20 minutes in concerts over the years.)

It would be interesting to hear the OAE play the Eroica with a conductor willing to ‘do a Furtwängler’ (Christian Thielemann, maybe) – would this cause a players’ revolution? But with so much scholarship and new editions around, one feels that it’s the letter rather than the spirit of the score (in general, although, at the moment, specifically the Eroica) that is now the order of the day. This week’s Eroicas have been too respectful, Keable’s the most involving, the OAE’s the most texturally interesting.

During the OAE’s Eroica there were several interruptions from what might have been a door banging, save the noise seemed to come from different directions and was certainly of different volumes. It was though quite easy to imagine gun-firing revolutionaries advancing on Paris. Beethoven survived, however.

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