Laurence Equilbey’s Insula Orchestra gives a brilliant historically informed concert at Dresden’s Frauenkirche

GermanyGermany Dresden Music Festival [5]– Mozart: Pierre Génisson (clarinet), Insula Orchestra / Laurence Equilbey (conductor), Frauenkirche, Dresden, 24.5.2023. (GT)

Conductor Laurence Equilbey and clarinettist Pierre Génisson © Oliver Killig

Mozart – La clemenza di Tito – Overture; Clarinet Concerto in A major, KV 622; Symphony No.39 in E-flat major, KV 543

The Dresden Music Festival embraces dozens of venues in the city and its environs between 18 May and 18 June this year. The world’s finest orchestras perform in the renovated Kulturpalast and opera and ballet at the world-renowned Semperoper. At the heart of the chamber and choral events are the charming acoustics of the renovated Frauenkirche in the old city.

Among the visitors in 2023 are the French Insula Orchestra led by their conductor Laurence Equilbey. Formed by Equilbey in 2012, this chamber ensemble has acquired a reputation in period performance and in a wide sphere of musical performance ranging from the baroque to the modernists, embracing diverse genres, including opera and ballet. A disciple of Nicholas Harnoncourt, Equilbey has proved herself as a reliable interpreter of the classical repertoire.

The Frauenkirche created the ideal venue for this Mozart concert with original instruments. The church was partially destroyed by RAF bombing in 1945, and for many years it lay in ruins as a memorial to fascism. It was only after reunification that the German government decided to rebuild it as a church and concert venue in 2005.

In this concert, the orchestra played in the central space of the church which allowed for a certain intimacy with the audience and a suitable distance from the rear of the church and the organ, presumably to find the appropriate acoustics for their performance, albeit I noticed an echo of four seconds after each piece ended. The concert opened with two pieces from the final stage in Mozart’s career; the overture to La clemenza di Tito and the masterly Clarinet Concerto following upon his late masterpiece Die Zauberflöte, when he needed to clear his debts.

La clemenza di Tito was composed after Antonio Salieri turned the commission down for Leopold II’s coronation as King of Bohemia in Prague in 1791, Mozart wrote the opera quickly. Equilbey opened with a superbly bracing fanfare evincing the opera’s dramaticism with the strings taking a brisk pace and there was vividly colourful woodwind with the flute and oboe announcing a wonderfully attractive idea picked up by the two bassoons before the orchestra demonstrated the pomp and ceremony of the opera in the proper grand style.

The Insula Orchestra plays Mozart in the Frauenkirche © Oliver Killig

I have not heard this orchestra before but recall Equilbey conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra a couple of seasons ago. She is a fine conductor who forgoes the grand gestures at the podium rather concentrating on thorough preparation and just making clear ones throughout the performance. She certainly has a strong personality and is sure to continue having a major career ahead of her.

Written for his friend Anton Stadler, the Clarinet Concerto represents the peak of <Mozart’s last period exemplifying his craftsmanship and invention. The concerto opened serenely and with great virtuosity, and unlike many other concertos, the piece has no contrasting themes, and in the subtle interplay between orchestra and the soloist, there were set free a sequence of wonderfully harmonic melodies.

The Adagio in simple A-B-A form was sublime in the inner simplicity of the musical lines, and wonderfully adorned by the cadenza performed sensitively by Pierre Génisson. There was an astonishing song-like harmony from the soloist enhanced by his instrument (Buffet Crampon). The basset clarinet demonstrated a deep intonation which allowed a wonderfully pleasant warm harmony and a cavernous sound.

The Rondo finale had a wistful, gentle idiom which baffled one when one considers the state of mind of the composer. Génisson spurns a showy presence on stage, rather concentrating on his playing and being in harmony with the orchestra. Génisson is a prize-winner of competitions in Denmark and Japan and has developed a prodigious career worldwide in both historic and modern performance, and one hopes to hear more from him in the UK in coming seasons.

The E-flat major symphony opened grandly with solemn fanfares on the brass, with the magnificently upbeat music enriched by brilliant solo passages from the flute. It heralded the verdant strings in the Allegro cantilena, which developed with animated violins proclaiming a spirited theme before the melancholy idea on the strings was boosted by the woodwind. Splendidly directed at a fairly slow tempo by Equilbey, the ensemble played marvellously bringing out all the sparkle of Mozart’s score.

In the Andante con moto, the French conductor handled wonderfully the repeated three contrasting themes on the strings with the subtly translucent idiom switching to a forcefully played section before the duet between the bassoon and the clarinet led to a harmonious accord.

In the explosive opening to the Menuetto (Allegretto), the strings presaged the Trio with the especially delightful Ländler decorated by the arpeggios from the clarinet. There was an especially joyous festivity deriving from Viennese tavern songs. The Allegro finale was dramatically stunning with every musician evincing all the irresistible beauty of Mozart’s symphony, with the bassoon in particular revealing splendid virtuosity, and the conductor reprised brilliantly the development section leading to the excellent close.

It was an impressive concert, and most of all enhanced by the setting of the Frauenkirche and its splendid acoustic, and a complete transformation from the previous three evenings at the modern Leipzig Gewandhaus’s Grosser Saal and the Mahler symphonies, but this Mozart concert of historically informed performance revealed another side to Saxony’s musical festivities and was an occasion I was glad not to have missed.

 Gregor Tassie

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