Egarr Contrasts Beethoven’s Pastoral with Music by his French Contemporary Méhul

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven & Méhul: Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Richard Egarr (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 10.11.2016. (SRT)

Beethoven – Overture, ‘Prometheus’; Symphony No.6 ‘Pastoral’
Méhul – Symphony No.1

I always look forward to Richard Egarr’s concerts with the SCO.  There is a marvellous freshness to his music making and his concerts reflect his determination to rediscover what was originally exciting about the classics.  Tonight, for example, he cheekily silenced the audience’s opening applause by banging out the opening chords of Prometheus without waiting for silence, and then played the opening section daringly slowly, with a marvellously juicy bass line underpinning it. The ensuing Allegro molto was equally daringly fast, testing the orchestra’s virtuosity to its breaking point but still (just!) holding together.

There was a fair lick to his Pastoral, too, but also a lovely sheen to the strings that lent some luxury to the first two movements without losing the precision of the faster moments.  In the Scherzo the horns brayed, the winds skirled and the strings rollicked, propelled by the energy of Egarr’s mechanistic elbow, and the storm sounded more in-your-face than usual due to the deliberate underlining of the timpani line.  If the Shepherds’ Hymn felt rushed, particularly damagingly towards the end, then the open-ness of the colour made up for it, particularly the trumpets and trombones, who I don’t often notice in this movement.

Recently, however, in addition to scraping the barnacles off familiar works, Egarr has taken to introducing SCO audiences to unfamiliar works by little-known composers. After giving me my first dose of Dussek in 2013 tonight I had my first encounter with the French neo-classicist Étienne Nicolas Méhul.  He was writing his first symphony in Paris at the exact time that Beethoven was writing the Pastoral, but while Beethoven’s symphony looks forward to the tone pictures of the Romantic age, Méhul’s is firmly grounded in the French neo-classicism of his own time.  His orchestra is restrained, but there is still power in his writing.  The finale is particularly successful, bearing affinities with Mozart’s 40th symphony, with which it shares a key, but it’s more troubled and searching.  The first movement bears a stridency that wouldn’t be out of place in an operatic scene by Gluck or Haydn, and the slow movement is a sinuous set of variations.

So it’s musically fairly satisfying, but technically it’s pretty blunt.  There’s a lot of repetition, for example, and some sections, like the first movement’s development, have a lot of fairly innocuous note-spinning.  He didn’t seem to know how to end his movements, either. The slow movement winds down nicely with an orchestral cheerio, “and then the bassoons happen” (Egarr’s words!).  The Scherzo concludes with a rather silly drum motif, and the finale stops alarmingly abruptly.  Still, Egarr made an effective advocate, and the orchestra played it with (perhaps) more commitment than it deserved, with period-sensitive, wiry string tone and a genuine agitato effect in the finale.  It might not send me off to seek out the rest of Méhul’s oeuvre, but he makes an interesting footnote, even if I doubt he’d be happy with the “not Beethoven” association.  After all, we heard him tonight more to point up how great Beethoven’s achievement was in contrast to his.  Is it better to be revived as that or to be forgotten altogether?

Simon Thompson

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