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Enlightened struggles

Royal Albert Hall
07/13/1998 -  
B>Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 7 in D major, 'Dice benissimo' , 'Un cor si tenero'
Christoph Willibald Gluck : Overture 'Alceste', 'Dieux! qui me poursuivez' from Iphigénie en Tauride, 'Tu décides son sort' from Iphigénie en Aulide
Ludwig van Beethoven : Symphony n°3,'Eroica'

Thomas Allen (baritone)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Heinrich Schiff (conductor)

On paper, this programme looked promising : a survey of the themes of struggle and survival against divine (or violent natural) forces, from rational, optimistic Haydn through dramatic, humane Gluck to the high Romantic aspirations of Beethoven's Eroica. And performed by a fine orchestra which knows the period well.

Unfortunately, the main struggle seemed to be against the oppressive heat of the nearly-full hall. On a similarly suffocating night in 1975, Thomas Allen, tonight's soloist in the Haydn and Gluck arias, keeled over during a performance of Carmina Burana and was miraculously replaced by a member of the audience who knew the part. It would be remarkable to find a Promenader who knew two Haydn arias, and fortunately nothing quite so alarming happened tonight.

Unfortunately, nothing very interesting happened either. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment always play with clarity and style, but they deliver essentially what their conductor orders. Heinrich Schiff probably ordered understated grace in the Haydn symphony, a celebration of a rebuilt opera house arising from the ashes of a disastrous fire, but it came over as watery vagueness in the sweaty hall.

Thomas Allen looked and sounded weary, and he couldn't do much with the neat but insubstantial Haydn arias. 'Dice benissimo' is a prosaic foreshadowing of Leporello's catalogue in form and style, making me appreciate Mozart even more. 'Un cor si tenero', a prayer for mercy, was even less memorable.

Gluck survived the introspective mood of the performance better. The overture to Alceste was sometimes moving, evoking mourning and the fear of death unmistakably in strong dramatic movements. Allen likewise found drama in the more familiar Gluck arias, especially Agamemnon's scena from Iphigénie en Aulide in which he struggles with himself whether to sacrifice his daughter.

I might have expected the Eroica to gain something from a more reflective approch, but again it didn't come off tonight, at least initially. There were a few moments of suave exuberance in third movement, and the long development of the fourth movement built up satisfactorily to an uplifting conclusion.

The audience, as ever, loved it, all being well that ended well. I'd rather have felt more of the heroic struggle, and of the sense that the struggle is all that keeps you out of the devil's claws.

H.E. Elsom



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