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 PROM 53 - Purcell, Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn: Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano). Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Sir Roger Norrington (conductor) Royal Albert Hall London 25.8.2009 (MMB) 

Purcell – Abdelazer: Suite
Handel – Xerxes: Ombra mai fu’, Alcina: Ah! mio cor!, Water Music: Suite No. 2 in D major
Haydn – Scena di Berenice
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) – Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56, “Scottish”

Prom 53 brought together the 2009 anniversary composers: We celebrate Purcell’s 350th and Mendelssohn’s 200th birthdays; and we remember Handel’s and Haydn’s deaths, 250 and 200 years ago respectively. This Prom was also the only one in the current series to present works from all four composers in one single night.

The evening started with a rather pretty little piece by Purcell, the suite he composed for Aphra Behn’s tragedy “Abdelazer”. This is not dramatic music to a play but incidental music, which, in Purcell’s time, was often commissioned from a composer with the aim of entertaining the public during pauses or breaks in the play. These pieces were played in the theatre at the opening or closing of acts or between scenes, which is why they were known as “curtain tunes” or “act tunes”. The Suite is formed of six movements of which the Rondeau is nowadays the best known, as Benjamin Britten used it in his “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”. The Rondeau is certainly the most famous but my favourite is the Minuet, with its sweet, tender melodic lines. Although it was incidental music, it is dramatically expressive and it conveys well the sadness and darkness of Behn’s tragedy. Sir Roger Norrington and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment gave a charming performance of the work, providing the ideal opening to what became a great musical evening.

Purcell was followed by Handel with two arias from his operas “Xerxes” (better known as Serse) and “Alcina”. To perform them, American mezzo, Joyce DiDonato, came on stage, walking on her own feet, I’m glad to say, having now recovered from her fall at the Royal Opera House, where she broke a leg during the premiere of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, in early July. The accident made headlines because she stoically continued to sing until the end, supporting herself on crutches, under what must have been excruciating pain. She demonstrated great professionalism and did not cancel any performance thereafter, singing Rosina from a wheelchair. Perhaps for this fact, which won her respect and admiration even amidst people who do not go to the opera, one could detect the anticipation in the audience before her appearance. Ms DiDonato received a very warm welcome indeed and she certainly did not disappoint. From “Xerxes”, she sang Ombra mai fu’, a short but beautiful, lyrical aria that DiDonato delivered with a delicate poetic line, superb legato and an overall captivating sweetness that truly touched the heart. She followed this little gem with a very difficult piece: the aria Ah! Mio cor! from Act 2 of “Alcina”, the time in the opera where the sorceress believes that the only man she ever loved, Ruggiero, has abandoned her enchanted island. Ah! Mio cor! is a virtuosic piece, difficult to deliver convincingly for various reasons. It is technically demanding; it is long (it lasts ten minutes) and the singer has to demonstrate a wide variety of emotions that the heroine goes through: from love to grief, incomprehension, hurt pride and anger. DiDonato was simply magnificent. Her range is incredible; she moves with great ease from deep, dark tones to luminous high notes that always remain velvety smooth and warm. We felt the sorceress’ love, her hatred, her pain and understood her furious desire for revenge; top this with the accuracy of her coloratura, the purity of her sound and an impeccable technique, and one understands why, as she finished, audience, orchestra and conductor were completely surrendered to her talent.

I always feel privileged when I listen to and watch one of Ms DiDonato’s performances. She always gives it all and makes one feel special, as if she were singing for you alone. She is equally at home with Handel virtuoso arias as she is with Rossini’s demanding flights of coloratura. She was stunning at the ROH, in July, having then sung a flawless Rosina even though she could not stand up; but she was no less amazing at this Prom. Her fabulous interpretation of Handel was later consolidated with a show-stopper by Haydn, entitled Scena di Berenice, a solo piece lasting thirteen minutes. This is not part of an opera as such. At the time of Haydn and Mozart, it was customary for composers to present a mixture of vocal and instrumental pieces during their concerts. This meant that they wrote arias and scenes aimed at a concert and therefore usually more spectacular than when being part of a whole operatic work. The text from this Haydn scena was taken from Pietro Metastasio’s Antigono and the composer wrote it for one of his last concerts during the second of his two visits to London. The harmonies that Haydn created are adventurous; the recitative is terribly dramatic, demonstrating the heroine’s shifting moods and the arias, particularly the final one, in the key of F minor is a searing piece, as eloquently put by Richard Wigmore in his Faber Pocket Guide to Haydn. Dare I say that Ms DiDonato’s performance was perfect? Well, yes, to my mind it was perfect or as near perfection as one will ever hear; judging by the roaring applause that she received from the audience and the spontaneous congratulations from orchestra and conductor, there were plenty of people present who would agree with me.

Prom 53 was of course not just a Joyce DiDonato affair, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Sir Roger Norrington had their glorious moments too. After DiDonato’s rendition of the two Handel arias and before she returned to sing Haydn’s scena, the orchestra performed the Suite No. 2 from one of Handel’s best know and most loved orchestral pieces, “Water Music”. While they did not offer anything new, their interpretation was all the same brilliant, effectively capturing the “royal” feeling of the piece; revealing an excellent understanding of the composer and the work.

Their true moment of glory though was with the final piece: Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, “Scottish”. I have written a few times before that although I appreciate this symphony, I do not care to listen to it very often due to its bleakness and gloomy sound. However, it appears to be a great favourite in Britain and as such it makes a programme more frequently than any of Mendelssohn’s other four symphonies; two of which, the “Italian” and the “Reformation”, are to my mind superior to the “Scottish”. I am therefore pleased to write that the performance of The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, led by the distinguished Sir Roger Norrington, was the best I have heard in a concert hall for the last two or three years. Norrington’s understanding of the sonority of each instrument was patent throughout and the antiphonal placement of the musicians certainly contributed to it. One heard the orchestra as a whole but was also capable of perceiving each instrument in its own clear individuality. The symphony sounded more radiant than usual; the darkness was not so marked; the folk elements were made more obvious and as a result one’s imagination was sparkled. I observed various people around me with their eyes closed and their bodies swaying slightly, as if they were being rocked by waves off the Scottish coast.

Some of Mendelssohn’s most important characteristics are the romantic, poetic use of some instruments and the unity he attempts to achieve in all his compositions; often reflected in the fact that there is hardly a break or none at all between movements. Norrington and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment fully grasped these particularities, which ultimately enhanced the evocative features of the symphony, i.e. the vastness and loneliness of the Scottish landscape. Norrington is a conductor at ease not only with himself and his musicians but also with the audience. It was lovely to see how he turned to face the auditorium, at the end of each piece, with a smile of pleasure and a happy nod, as if “conducting” the public and giving them their cue to applaud, which indeed they did generous and gratefully.

Prom 53 was a remarkable concert not only for DiDonato’s memorable performance or the conductor’s and orchestra’s brilliance but also because it was educational. It offered the public an enjoyable journey through the history and evolution of music. The composers were presented in chronological order, beginning with Purcell, then the apotheosis of the Baroque with Handel, followed by the perfect proportions of the Classic period with Haydn, and ending with the deeply felt romanticism of Mendelssohn. It effectively illustrated the changes in the music itself and in the orchestra through a considerable time span.

A great concert; one of the best Proms I have attended this summer. BBC Television was filming it for broadcast on BBC 2, Saturday, 5th September. Miss it at your peril!

Margarida Mota-Bull


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