Joyce DiDonato & Roger Norrington

Abdelazer [selections]
Xerxes – Ombra mai fù
Alcina – Ah, mio cor!
Water Music – Suite in D
Scena di Berenice
Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.56 (Scottish)

Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Roger Norrington

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 25 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir Roger NorringtonIt is three decades since Sir Roger Norrington first shot to international fame (some would say notoriety) for his pioneering and uncompromising approach to the Baroque and Classical canon. As this BBC Prom with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment proved, age has not diminished his ability to challenge expectations, but, the fire which once burnt so fiercely erupted less frequently.

The programme, featuring music from all four of this year’s major anniversary composers worked extremely well, highlighting not just the musical progression from Baroque to Romantic, but also continuity (something of which passionate Bach advocate Mendelssohn was keenly aware).

Joyce DiDonato. Photograph: Sheila RockSir Roger provided sumptuous, if understated, accompaniment to Joyce DiDonato’s captivating interpretations of arias from two Handel operas: serene and statuesque in the delectable ‘Ombra mai fù’ from “Xerxes”, passionate and angst-ridden in ‘Ah mio cor!’ from “Alcina”. The OAE played with urgency for Haydn’s “Scena di Berenice”, a stand-alone operatic showpiece written for the composer’s second visit to London in 1795, which showed off DiDonato’s formidable strengths to their utmost. Gracefully poised in the reflective passages, eyes ablaze during the Sturm und Drang fury, DiDonato reigned. On such dazzling form, no other mezzo matches her in this repertoire.

Sir Roger’s kid-glove attitude to Purcell’s instrumental music for “Abdelazer”, which began the concert, brought out none of its inherent theatricality. Though beautifully played, the elegant performance was too refined for the cavernous Royal Albert Hall, a smooth style ironing out much of the music’s distinctive dance rhythms, which made no concessions for the venue; Purcell’s string-only – without double basses – score meant that the sound struggled to carry. Even the appearance of the tune made famous by Britten in his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra made little impact.

More surprisingly, this bland, life-sapping attitude continued in the suite from Handel’s Water Music – a remarkable feat given that this is some of the most joyous and ebullient occasional-music ever composed. The wind, horns and trumpets evoked none of the excitement and grandness that must have been present on the Royal Barge when on the Thames in 1717; Sir Roger’s fault.

It was as if a different conductor stood in front of the Romantic-sized orchestra for Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ Symphony. Sir Roger, seemingly engaged, finally, conjured a vibrant and idiomatic performance full of energy and intensity, with bright, clear textures non-muddied by excessive string vibrato. After a melancholic introduction, steeped in Romantic longing, the first movement took off with terrific bite – Sir Roger’s use of excessive portamento duirng the transition into the development was questionable.

The scherzo was suitably light and breezy, the third movement reflective, but always flowing. The finale was exhilarating, and the symphony’s glorious coda truly majestic – the fruity rasp of the four valve-less horns provided so much character. This ‘Scottish’ was perfectly attuned to its emotion and poetry, without being bogged down by the sentimentalism that has done Mendelssohn no favours in recent decades.

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