Tuesday 6 April 2010

The Britten-Pears Orchestra plays Beethoven and Haydn

In just over two months time I'll be paying my annual visit to the Aldeburgh festival (and for the third year running providing the most comprehensive written coverage of any media outlet - unless I have some unexpected competition). However, the easter weekend found me making an unexpectedly longer than planned stay trip south, and thus in the vicinity to make an early visit to the Maltings.

The Britten-Pears Orchestra is an interesting ensemble, featuring young artists, either conservatory students or recent graduates, selected through international audition and coming together four times a year. As something of a scratch ensemble, and relatively youthful, they can sometimes be a little rough about the edges, but their enthusiasm normally makes up for it, and it certainly did on Sunday. They were joined by conductor Antonello Manacorda, who helped found the superb Mahler Chamber Orchestra with Claudio Abbado.

The first half of the programme was filled with Beethoven's 4th symphony. Long underrated, perhaps as a result of being sandwiched between the Eroica and the fifth, it has always been one of my favourites. For me, however, Manacorda's approach didn't quite gel, seemingly unsure if he wanted to go down the historically informed or romantic routes. On the one hand there was the lack of vibrato (with the exception of one or two players) and the natural horns and trumpets (the former struggling a little with rather too many fluffed notes). Yet on the other hand he seemed to want to pull the score about a lot: he took the opening slowly, and often added emphasis, at times a little too much, sucking the flow out of the music. The quickly taken finale worked best.

In the second half they gave us Haydn's Harmoniemesse (the coupling with the 4th perhaps suggested by its frequent description as Haydnesque, not one I altogether agree with). The opening Kyrie was a little sombre and heavy and I wondered if the work might have a similar problem to the Beethoven. However, things livened up greatly with the Gloria, and from then on Manacorda and the orchestra generally succeeded in bringing out the joy in Haydn's writing, which I always feel is crucial to a good performance. It also felt more polished than the Beethoven, having perhaps had more rehearsal time. The Britten-Pears Chamber Choir provided solid vocal support along with a fine quartet of soloists. The outstanding contribution came from bass Lukas Kargl who possessed a wonderfully powerful and rich voice (the only drawback being that they didn't always balance well as a quartet, and early on he rather overwhelmed the others).

Not, then, the greatest performance you will ever hear of either work, but an enjoyable evening nonetheless.

On a side note, I gather sales for Aldeburgh's rather exciting programme (Boulez and Leon Fleisher both feature) are slightly ahead of last year. I haven't got round to writing up a preview yet, but maybe I'll find time - there's lots worth seeing.

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