The Royal Philharmonic Society’s Bicentennial Memorably Celebrated

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, Schumann:   Emma Bell (soprano), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Marin Alsop (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 8.3.2013 (CC)

Mozart:  Idomeneo: Overture; O smania! O furie! … D’Oreste, d’Ajace
Beethoven:  Overture, Leonore No. 3. Fidelio: Abscheulicher! … Komm, Hoffnung
WeberOberon: Ocean! Thou mighty monster
Schumann:  Symphony No. 2 in C

This concert marked, to the day, 200 years since the first concert given by the Royal Philharmonic Society in London The concert’s tagline was “Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers: Curtain Raisers and High Drama”, a delightful way of mixing and matching overtures, arias and a symphony.

The choice of Emma Bell as soloist was spot on. After a punchy and characterful account of the short overture to Idomeneo from Alsop and her forces, shot through with disquiet and foreboding, Elettra’s aria “O smania! … D’Oreste” emerged as the perfect foil. Bell’s voice has just the right amount of edge and is hyper-expressive. Her diction is exemplary, her musicality beyond doubt. However, it was the way she could fit into each character, instantaneously and fully, that was most impressive. Elettra’s aria is full of torment, and we felt each stab of the heart, culminating in composed laughter that Bell delivered most disturbingly. Idomeneo is a vastly underrated opera, overshadowed, of course, by the sheer mega-genius of Mozart’s later offerings in the genre. It requires more outings in the opera house, though, and this performance was a forcible reminder of this.

Beethoven provided another, more extended, Overture plus Aria combination. Leonore No. 3 is no small snip of a piece. This original-instrument performance, especially with antiphonal violins, was very effective, from reedy bassoons to the individual trombones. This was not really a fully-formed reading, though, as it did not project the full spread of emotion. The statement of the theme to Florestan’s second act aria, “In des Lebens Frühlingstagen”, lost all of its sense of yearning; there was something of a bump to the arrival of the allegro main body of the overture, too. Much better was “Abscheulicher!”, with the four remarkable horn players of the OAE absolutely excellent as a unit in their obbligato function. Emma Bell’s burnished tone here again seemed perfect, and when she hit the higher end of her dynamic scale, the sound was never forced, just superbly focused and impressive. Bell’s involvement with the heroine’s plight and her delivery of Beethoven’s hymn to hope was simply the highlight of the evening. The ending with its ringing high horns, was a great way to end the first part of the concert.

Post-interval, Weber’s “Ocean! Thou mighty monster!” confirmed Bell’s talent for declamation; Alsop ensured that unrest was portrayed viscerally in the orchestra – at “Still I see thy billows flashing”; once again, though, it was Bell’s clear involvement with her character (this time Reiza) that shone through.

Schumann’s Second Symphony received its UK première under the auspices of the Royal Philharmonic Society in June 1864 so its inclusion in this bicentennial concert was apt. Alsop gave a brief speech/introductory analysis of the work before the full performance, enlisting various sections of the orchestra to play snippets and motifs. It was, in the event, a noteworthy performance, with the mystery of the opening Sostenuto assai beautifully caught. Alsop seemed keen to highlight Mendelssohnian elements in the first movement exposition, perhaps to balance the darker shadows of the development.

The Scherzo is placed second; here under Alsop it was a Berliozian/Mephistophelian experience. (It is sometimes thought of as more Mendelssohnian, although Toscanini’s performances – there are two extant, from 1941 and 1946 – demonstrate just how much energy lies latent here.) The OAE’s antiphonal violins worked well here. Alsop’s slow tempo for the Adagio espressivo was also effective, enabling the music to expand while showing off that Bachian counterpoint. In contrast, the wildly celebratory finale whisked all before it, with a great peroration at the close.

A memorable concert.


Colin Clarke