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Purcell, Handel, Haydn, Mendelsshon, Martinu: Soloists, Britten Sinfonia/Christopher Hogwood, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 26.10.2009 (J-PJ)

Purcell: Overture to The Fairy Queen
Handel: Concerto Grosso in F major, Op. 3, No. 4
Haydn: Symphony No. 70 in D major
Mendelssohn: The Fair Melusina Overture
Martinu: Sinfonia Concertante

Violin - Jacqueline Shave
Cello - Caroline Dearnley
Oboe - Nicholas Daniel
Bassoon - Ursula Leveaux

For anyone who missed this year’s round of anniversary concerts celebrating the music of Purcell, Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn and Martinu, this performance by the Britten Sinfonia offered a combined celebration of all four.

As conductor Christopher Hogwood explained in a brief commentary at the start of the programme, there were no thematic links between each work, apart from the dates of the composers’ births and deaths. Yet, as he also pointed out, they provided an insight into the development of music over the course of 250 years.

Purcell’s overture to The Fairy Queen opened the programme as a kind of fanfare. Hardly great music, it nonetheless provided a pleasant opening flourish, complete with expertly played natural trumpets and small timpani. More substantial was the concerto grosso no. 4 in F major from Handel’s Opus 3 set. The opening movement was marked by cohesive playing by the orchestra, although at times it did sound a little too taut and tense.

By the time Haydn came to write the Symphony No. 70 he was in full charge of the orchestra at Esterháza and well down the road of symphonic experimentation. Major to minor key shifts and tricky fugal themes fill the work, giving the Britten Sinfonia the chance to show what a versatile and talented group of players they are. The delicate unpeeling of the second movement’s complex canonic structure was particularly impressive.

As with the Purcell, Mendelssohn’s Fair Melusina overture gave little more than a brief glimpse of the composer’s oeuvre. Its main interest was in seeing how much his orchestra differed so little from Haydn’s, yet was used for bold new techniques that would eventually find their ultimate extension under Wagner.

Of all the anniversaries this year, Bohuslav Martinu’s has been the least celebrated. His death in 1959 has been marked by only a handful of concerts and recordings. Yet, as the Britten Sinfonia showed, he deserves to be much better remembered. His Sinfonia Concertante of 1950 harked back to classical forms and was inspired by Haydn’s own work. Featuring solo violin, oboe, bassoon and cello it also recalls Handel’s concerti grossi. The Britten Sinfonia were clearly passionate advocates of this work, with gutsy playing and shared smiles between the performers. Violinist Jacqueline Shave and Nicholas Daniel on oboe seemed to be having a whale of a time working their way through Martinu’s witty, jazzy score. The second movement in particular was full of Paris café touches, reined in by Baroque discipline, with the piano part ghosting for the harpsichord of Purcell and Handel’s day and so bringing us back full circle.

John-Pierre Joyce

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