OAE – Listening in Paris

Pelléas et Mélisande – Suite
Les nuits d’été, Op.7
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60

Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Marc Minkowski

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 5 October, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

“The series Listening in Paris puts the audiences of the past at the centre of attention. Who were they? What was the atmosphere inside concert halls? How did they listen?” So ran the introductory programme note. This all read suspiciously like just another piece of branding from a marketing department desperate for a peg on which to hang a new series. Given an orchestra of the quality of the OAE, is it really necessary to dream up such things for what proved to be a very good concert?

Especially when heard on original instruments, the juxtaposition of Berlioz and Beethoven can be enlightening. For instance, both the extended timpani roll at the close of the first movement of Beethoven 4 and the clarinet solo in its slow movement could be heard as being harbingers of the Symphonie fantastique, so clear was the umbilical connection between Beethoven and Berlioz’s soundworlds.

At the evening’s core was Anne Sofie von Otter’s performance of “Les nuits d’été”. The combination of Otter (whose French is immaculate), the OAE, a sympathetic if unconventional conductor, and the intimate acoustic of the Queen Elizabeth Hall was a winner. Many fine performances of this great song-cycle linger in mind – not least Janet Baker’s, one with Giulini and one with Barenboim – but this was altogether special in its obvious affinity: music and performers suspended in a rare fusion.

Occasionally, as in “Le Spectre de la Rose” or “Absence”, it seemed that the tempos were impossibly slow but such was the magnetic intimacy of Otter’s singing and the beauty of the timbres conjured by her accompanists that one wished both songs would go on forever. In my experience this performance did full justice to the cycle’s contradictory aspects, holding them in a near-miraculous equilibrium – “Les nuits d’été” contains some of the most deeply felt, most romantic music every written, and yet there are moments which clearly hark backwards to the classical world of Gluck. Otter’s singing had a classical finesse comparable to the very best bone-china, yet coupled with an underlying volatility and flexibility which was quintessential to Berlioz’s fantasy; this was nowhere better encapsulated than in “Sur les lagunes”, the aching loneliness of its opening lines offset by a surging climax and, at the end, the desperate emptiness of the cellos suspended as if in thin air.

From the OAE, the Beethoven symphony came complete with all repeats and was an invigorating, raucous blast from the past, reminding that politeness had no part in Beethoven’s vocabulary. Minkowski had a thoroughly unconventional focus on proceedings, mere time-beating having little or nothing to do with his technique. He resembled a dancing bear wheeling and dipping on the orchestra, more an animateur. The OAE responded to his innate musicality with the utmost enthusiasm, Antony Pay’s clarinet solos and Lisa Beznosiuk’s plangent, woody flute giving particular pleasure. Only the headlong tempo for the finale – no hint of Beethoven’s marked ‘non troppo’ – was seriously questionable; but, like Skegness, it was all so bracing.

The concert had begun with a deeply-felt reading of Fauré’s music for “Pelléas et Mélisande”, with the added attraction of Otter emerging from the wings to sing Mélisande’s song. This is a rarely-heard addition, to the Suite, which Fauré wrote for Mrs Patrick Campbell, the actress who not only played Mélisande in the original 1898 London production of Maeterlinck’s play but who had also been responsible for choosing Fauré to provide the music.

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