Music for an ordered world

Rameau and Gluck both made important contributions to the development of opera on its long journey from masques with music, through narrative operas with show-off arias through to Wagner's music-drama and beyond. Writing at a time when to the intelligentsia the world seemed logical and ordered (an illusion - if you were poor it was just as chaotic as it is now) their music is beautiful without being florid, and expressive though mostly without passion.

Yesterday evening at the Queen Elizabeth Hall the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment - conducted by Iván Fischer and playing with original or copies of period instruments to give the music its true flavour - performed excerpts from two such operas. Rameau's Castor et Pollux - drawn, as were most operas of the time, from Classic mythology - was composed in 1737 (revised in 1754): we heard a series of dances drawn from the opera, and an aria - sung by a star in the Heavens as Castor and his brother Pollux ascend to become constellations - sung off-stage by soprano Grace Davidson. The dances still have the flavour of Renaissance dances by Praetorius and the like, with inventive and attractive construction and melodies: the aria is suitably ethereal.

The second half of the concert began with a single aria, 'Se mai senti', from La clemenza di Tito (1752) by Gluck (a subject used by many other composers including Mozart): it was originally written for a castrato but in the absence of the absence (so to speak) Grace Davidson sang this wide-ranging and quietly demanding aria with a limpid beauty.

Two orchestral works completed the two halves of the concert. Following the Rameau we head Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E flat for violin, viola and orchestra (K364): Rachel Podger conducted as well as playing the violin (following the convention of the period) and Pavlo Beznosiuk played the viola - unusually tuned a semitone higher than normal: Mozart wrote the viola line in D major to have it sound in E flat with a brighter tone than usual (I shudder to think how a performer with perfect pitch would cope). It's a calm and elegant and flowing work, expressively and attractively played.

While admitting Mozart to be the greater composer for his harmonic and melodic innovations, I have to say I have a softer spot for Haydn. His innovations bordered on the quirky, but there is a warmth and humanity in his music often lacking from that of the clever young Mozart. We heard Symphony No. 83 - nicknamed (though not by Haydn) 'La Poule" because of its hen-like clucking from the oboe in the first movement. The period instruments gave the work a spring so often lacking when his music is played by a large modern symphony orchestra.

Posted: Thu - May 15, 2008 at 09:51 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM