OAE – Listening in Paris: Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Iphigénie en Aulide – Overture
Sinfonia concertante in E flat for flute, oboe, horn, bassoon and orchestra, K297b [ed. Robert Levin]
Chevalier de Saint-Georges
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.11 (Overture to L’Amant anonyme)
Symphony No.31 in D, K297 (Paris)

Lisa Beznosiuk (flute), Anthony Robson (oboe), Roger Montgomery (horn) & Andrew Watts (bassoon)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Frans Brüggen

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 14 November, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The continuation of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s “Listening In Paris” series gave the rare opportunity to explore the music and life of Chevalier de Saint-Georges, both in the shape of his second published symphony and in a pre-concert film about him.

The screening revealed an unprecedented talent, for Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, to give him his exotic full name, grew up a champion fencer and became leader of a sizeable army in the French Revolution, his duties leading to imprisonment when the ‘Reign of Terror’ took hold. Along the way he had been touted as the next conductor of the Paris Opera, only for this position to be denied him on account of complaints from three divas refusing to be conducted by a man of his skin colour. Chevalier has become known as ‘Le Mozart Noir’, and, as Jeanne Lamon demonstrated in the film, he was a composer of some prowess.

Frans Brüggen and the OAE zipped through the symphony with a sprightly charm in the outer movements, both marked Presto, the strings enjoying the tremolo lines and lilting second subject of the first movement. Brüggen slowed considerably for the brief yet poignant Andante, heightening the contrast with the scurrying motifs of the finale.

This made an exciting curtain raiser to the second half, which also included a sparkling ‘Paris’ Symphony, both slow movements in place – Mozart’s original, criticised by its beneficiary Le Gros, and its 6/8 replacement. Even with ‘both’ middle movements performed the symphony clocked in at a brisk twenty minutes, the slow ones fully heeding their Andante markings and the outer, faster ones full of vim and vigour. Led by the energetic Elizabeth Wallfisch, the strings were on the button for the opening call to arms, the increased size of Mozart’s forces making a stirring sound. In the finale Brüggen dashed along, securing crisp playing yet making much of a curious ebb and flow effect in the development, the music making a brief yet noticeable diversion into ‘Sturm und Drang’ territory.

Throughout, Brüggen let the orchestra have the limelight, perching his wiry frame on a tall chair. He was behind the four soloists in the Sinfonia concertante (as edited by Robert Levin, flute replacing the perhaps-inauthentic clarinet), but even though they rarely communicated visually this was another immensely engaging performance, each of the soloists playing well if dominated by oboist Anthony Robson’s purity of tone. The bass-driven theme of the opening Allegro was given plenty of weight, helped by Chi-Chi Nwanoku’s energetic leading of the quartet of double basses, but the Theme and Variations finale could perhaps have benefited from more humour in the exchanges between the soloists. No matter, for these ‘question and answer’ phrases were always captivating.

To start this appealing programme was the atmospheric overture to “Iphigénie en Aulide”, Brüggen taking plenty of time over the bare bones of the opening music, the octaves that then drove the music on aggressively poised, always in unison.

Audiences may be more reserved now than in 1770s’ Paris – no dogs in the stalls any more! – but there was plenty of enthusiasm from the QEH audience in its ovation for Brüggen – richly deserved and modestly received.

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