The joy and stimulus of live music-making from the St Paul’s Sinfonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven. Doolittle, and Mendelssohn: Carleen Ebbs (soprano), St Paul’s Sinfonia / Andrew Morley (conductor). Stanley Halls, London, 18.9.2020. (MB)

Beethoven – Overture: ‘Coriolan’, Op.62; Ah! perfido, Op.65

Emily Doolittle – A Short, Slow Life

Mendelssohn – Symphony No.4 in A major, ‘Italian’, Op.90

Attending a concert in London has at present something of the Prohibition era to it. Music-making is not quite prohibited, of course, yet not so far off, even without an audience. (Football, being a matter of crucial national importance, is of course another matter.) And so it was that I found myself taking three trains to South Norwood to hear this St Paul’s Sinfonia concert in the Edwardian Stanley Halls, part of a select yet enthusiastic audience, augmented several times over at home, I trust, by a Front Rooms Concert audience, helping raise money for Help Musicians.

There remains something very special about the privilege of hearing Beethoven’s music this year. To feel the Coriolan Overture course through one’s veins in as immediate and reverberant an acoustic as this was more than worth the journey in itself. Andrew Morley, elsewhere an energetic and engaging compère, led the musicians in a cultivated, urgent performance, in which one could feel as well as see and hear bows fly from strings. Rhythmic insistence played its part in bringing Beethoven’s heroism to life: much needed, given what desperate news lay outside the hall. The final, decisive turn to C minor spoke of true, noble tragedy, not the deadlier banality around us. How this music matters: it is part of what makes us human.

Soprano Carleen Ebbs joined the orchestra, now slimmed down to ensemble size, for Emily Doolittle’s Elizabeth Bishop setting, A Short, Slow Life. Again, one could hardly fail to make connections with, to draw conclusions from our current plight; again, our experience was certainly not to be reduced to that. It opened sharp, precise, yet certainly not without warmth, whether in work or performance. A fine ear for instrumental combinations was revealed on the composer’s part, likewise by players and conductor, for the balance necessary to reveal them in performance. Apparently simple figures — scalic passages, for instance — sounded fresh, even far from simple, somehow reinvented before our ears. Procedures were clear, while remaining means to an end rather than an end in themselves. Indeed, the variety of musical writing within a relatively short frame was striking, not least since it unquestionably formed part of a greater whole. Grateful vocal writing, whether in musical response to scansion or in beguiling melismata, sometimes as part of the ensemble, sometimes set in relief, found a compelling interpreter in Ebbs.

So too did Beethoven, in his 1796 concert aria, Ah! perfido, the first of two German visits to Italy. Vigour, nobility, and tenderness showed Beethoven coming as close as ever he could to the Mozart of Così fan tutte, reminding one above all why, though admiring its music greatly, poor Beethoven and his very different morality could never comprehend Mozart’s bracing modernity here. Like Wagner, only more so, Mozart proceeds beyond good and evil; Beethoven’s conception of the good is an entirely different matter. Good is good, though, especially in a performance in which the orchestra truly speaks. Cellos and basses did excellent work in the accompagnato; the soloist sent shivers down the spine in the hochdramatisch final section.

Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony completed the programme. Morley’s evident affection for and understanding of the work shone through. (How could anyone not love this music?) Bright and vivid A major in the first movement benefited from insistence of counterpoint and dance rhythm. The second movement processional proved nicely poised between invitation and something more forbidding: to join the pilgrims or not? Mendelssohn is not, after all, Berlioz. An amiable minuet gave way to a touching trio, Mendelssohn’s writing for horns duly relished. It was the finale for me that received the most compelling performance, a veritable whirlwind of saltarello that yet found space for detail. Far from coincidentally, the frame through which local colour could be glimpsed and felt was decisively Beethovenian.

Mark Berry

For more about St Paul’s Sinfonia click here.

Leave a Comment