Sunday, 17 January 2016

A successful period interlude (Philharmonia/DMH)

Haydn and Mozart (Michael Collins cond. Philharmonia at the De Montfort Hall).
The standard for orchestral Mozart over the previous month has been high: the SCO and English Concert raising it to the very highest standard. A whiff of danger about a Mozart and Haydn programme from the Philharmonia. This season has been underwhelming, and they aren’t a period setup – their most impressive performances of late have been of C20th music.
The major disadvantage for the Philharmonia doing this is that they are not a period orchestra- and do not have any period instruments as far as I am aware. I will not do the newspaper critic thing of complaining that I’d rather hear a different orchestra in a different venue play and alternative programme. The advantage of a modern symphonic orchestra is that it gives power and a more robust sound. Is this a worthwhile trade-off? The short answer is that for the Mozart it really worked.
Firstly Haydn’s 49th symphony. I forget how many symphonies he wrote; fairly few are memorable, and this isn’t really one of them. Perhaps with some really special period forces it would be different. Mozart only wrote once for the harp (apparently), and his Concerto for Flute and Harp K299 is it.Maybe this worked better in a rococo salon or something. All the same, there is a palpable sense that the boy genius wasn’t all that sure what to do with a harp, it was rather a plucked harpsichord, and I found all this a bit uneasy, frankly. An awkwardness when on principal was “in-sourced” from the Orchestra Samuel Coles (Flute). This is not necessarily a bad thing, but if the space wasn’t set up on a stage properly, etc – well it is a bit disrespectful to the musician. So is getting the violins to stand up and kick their chairs back a few feet.I am afraid the harpist Catrin Finch made less of an impression, but I think this was all the unease of the piece. So blame Wolfie. 
Any shortcomings can be forgiven for the blessed half hour of Jupiter. And this was a good account of it. Elemental forces were summoned and it was a thrilling ride from start to finish. It is not hard to believe it was written at around the same time as Don Giovanni: I was waiting from the Commendatore to appear during the first movement. In fact I don’t think anyone would have batted an eyelid if he had appeared. The same thundering, booming orchestral forces are deployed as in the DG overture, and give that impending sense of doom, and the music is almost as gripping. Here the benefits of modern instruments were apparent. The second is more gentle – perhaps a chat with Leporello. But the pace continued and it was an extremely enjoyable half-hour. This was impressive
In the absence of any Russian music on the programme, there seemed rather too many empty seats for comfort. Surely Saturday nights are more convenient?

Not having come across Michael Collins before, I was interested to read his programme note – his woefully out-of-date site is here.   He had the Philharmonia on a consistently tight leash, not least so that the music wasn't overpowered. Pretty successful, really, and worth another visit. 
Next time there will be no complaints about power: it is Mahler.

Programme in full:
Haydn S49 Passione
Mozart Concerto for Flute and Harp K299
Mozart S41 Jupiter K551

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