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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Weber, Overture and arias from ‘Der Freischütz: Mendelssohn, Violin Concerto Op. 64, Symphony no. 3: The Academy of Ancient Music, cond. Christopher Hogwood; Christiane Oelze, Giuliano Carmignola, Barbican Hall, 16 May 2005 (ME)

The premiere of Weber’s ‘Der Freischütz’ was a defining moment not only for opera itself, in terms of the work’s setting and characters – a forest in Bohemia rather than a scene of classical elegance, hunters and peasants rather than noblemen – but also for Mendelssohn who was in the audience on that first night. The Overture is of course one of the best-known of ‘openers’ to a concert, but it is not often set as it was here, with the clear intention of demonstrating the influence of Weber upon Mendelssohn: this fascinating programme made clear the connections between them, and even though the grouping of the arias and concerto was somewhat quixotic it was nevertheless the kind of programming which we see too infrequently.

The Academy of Ancient Music is so polished a band that one is hardly aware of the ‘ancient’ tag – no whining strings here, and certainly no booming trumpets: of course their pioneering recording of all Mozart’s symphonies is so well known that their sound goes before them as with few other orchestras - as directed by their founder, their performance is assured, fluent and sympathetic to the soloists, even though there are those who might find it perhaps a little too ‘safe.’ The overture was given a bright, lyrical performance, not too heavy on the brass and displaying the orchestra’s very fine strings to advantage. Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto was oddly sandwiched between two Weber arias: it was given a confident but hardly remarkable performance by Carmignola, whose first few bars sounded flat to my ears but who recovered to give a well judged rendition of the beautiful Andante: this is supposedly a piece which used to lay the ladies out in the aisles in Leipzig, but here it was perhaps a bit too careful to inspire such passion: the vibrant scherzo was a much better vehicle for displaying Carmignola’s undoubted virtuosity.

Anyone who regularly reads my reviews will know that I do not care for ‘bleeding chunks’ from operas, and I especially dislike them when, as so often happens, they are all we seem to be permitted to hear of certain singers in London: where Madrid, Munich, Köln, Paris happily stage whole operas with these singers, they are noticeably absent from our own major opera houses, and we have to make do with the odd aria. Well, I suppose it’s better than nothing, and much as I would prefer to hear Christiane Oelze in a fully staged ‘Freischütz,’ these two arias at least gave us the opportunity to hear this most intrinsically lovely of soprano voices in repertoire to which it is eminently well suited. The cavatina ‘Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle’ revealed her at not quite her best: the beginnings of a cold were obviously there and she was clearly being careful not to force her lines, but her idiomatic phrasing and quality of touching vulnerability were still in evidence. The better known ‘Leise, leise’ was sung with fluency and exact diction, the breathless excitement of ‘All meine Pulse schlagen’ beautifully captured. It’s too ‘romantic’ for some, of course, but the whole opera could do with a full London staging – on second thoughts, how to produce it with the seemingly obligatory panoply of flak jackets, AK 57s and the compulsory bout of madness?

Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ symphony formed the concert’s second half; I love this work, with its evocation of all that is remarkable about Scotland – the grandeur of its rugged scenery, the unequalled beauty of the colours of its landscapes, the poetry and majesty of its glorious legends – and it could hardly have been better served than it was here. The story of the work’s inspiration – the composer’s visit to Holyrood, during which he was deeply affected by the sublimely gothic ruined abbey there – is well known, and the opening of the work finely depicts the kind of gloomy, melancholy aura of a ‘picturesque’ scene, so beloved of writers such as Ossian and Young. Mendelssohn himself directed the work as a single whole, a process respected by Hogwood in that the thematic associations were made absolutely clear. The wonderful Adagio, its sweeping string part so delicately played here, is perhaps the closest link to be made to Weber since it recalls the melody of ‘Leise, leise’, and the ‘hunting horns’ of the final allegro show how Mendelssohn was influenced by the earlier composer’s use of vivid musical language.

Only the Stalls were used for this concert, which made for a pleasing intimacy although it was a pity that the audience was not large enough to fill the hall: the sponsor was XL Capital, which must surely bode well for the future of the AAM, particularly if this kind of imaginative programming can be continued. Two forthcoming concerts can be highly recommended to those who would like to hear more from this evening’s performers: on Thursday June 9th the AAM will give a programme of Corelli, Locatelli and others, directed by Carmignola, and on Monday June 20th, Christiane Oelze will be accompanied by Julius Drake in an enticing BBC Lunchtime Recital of Schubert, Britten and Walton. And about time, too.

Melanie Eskenazi

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