…at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, yesterday (Sunday 25 April 2010), conducted by Ben Palmer.
The concert began with the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, beginning with a riskily fast tempo for the ‘slow’ introduction – the spooky music for the arrival of the statue of the dead Commendatore at Don Giovanni’s supper table; but Ben Palmer knew what he was doing, and it worked. The ensuing Allegro was a bit of a scrabble, the strings not quite in tune yet, the trumpets and timpani drowning everything out at their entries in the echoey acoustic of St Paul’s. (Solution? Harder timp sticks? Just mark all their dynamics down a bit? Make each entry a very quick diminuendo from a fortepiano? Shame, as the ‘straight’ natural trumpets made a great sound, as well as looking terrific.)
And the Overture ended with an awkward and stylistically out-of-kilter concert ending (necessary because in the opera itself the Overture doesn’t ‘finish’ but segues into the first scene in a different key). Nul points to whichever publisher perpetrated that one – there are much simpler solutions that work fine.
Next came the reason we were there – my niece Rosie Burton playing the Hummel Bassoon Concerto. There is something of a shortage of decent bassoon concertos (well, if you don’t count the 36 or so by Vivaldi, and one that probably isn’t by Rossini); the teenage Mozart wrote one, which is famous because it is by Mozart but is really not up to much (though you wonder what the other half-dozen or so he is alleged to have written might have been like). Weber wrote the greatest of all, in 1811; and that’s about it, apart from a few modern ones. No Beethoven, Brahms Dvořák or Elgar… And then there’s Johann Nepomuk Hummel. He was an interesting chap – student (and lodger) of Mozart, pupil of Haydn and Beethoven, wrote some fine (and very jolly) chamber music, including the wittiest Wind Octet ever written; and he wrote his Grand Concerto for Bassoon in 1805. It isn’t heard very often, because it is VERY difficult: not only is there lots of whizzing about in semiquavers, but the writing is awkward and un-bassoony – double octaves, huge skips and ever-widening arpeggio patterns – so the piece is even harder than it sounds.
Rosie did a fantastic job, performing with note-perfect accuracy, style, polish and fun, and above all with a gorgeous sound: warm, rich tone, smooth and nutty, and totally under control at all times. I am very envious! – and very proud.
After the interval, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D – an ‘early’ work that isn’t heard as often as it should be or used to be. Ben Palmer once again went for broke in his daringly fast tempi, but they paid off. And this time the stabs of trumpets and timpani were perfectly judged, providing Beethovenian ‘punctuation’ with point and clarity but never drowning the rest of the band.
The gently lilting ‘slow’ movement was refreshing – special praise for Tom Hardy on bassoon, along with the other woodwind principals – though I would have preferred just a little more room to breathe for the bouncy cello theme: the tempo is Larghetto, after all.
Conversely, the Scherzo felt as if it could have done with being even quicker. But it made its Beethovenian mark, especially the moment in the Trio when the unison strings say ‘We’re going to play in F sharp major now’ and the rest of the orchestra says ‘Oh no you’re not!’
The Finale was an absolute rocket, and brilliantly effective. Occasionally it seemed to totter on the verge of rushing out of control, but never quite did. Ben Palmer captured perfectly Beethoven’s shock tactics and rough wit in the handling of the opening ‘yah boo’ motive, and conversely the hushed moment in the Coda when pizzicato cellos and basses step down and down into new harmonic realms, ‘as if’, in the words of Sir George Grove quoted by my brother Tony in his programme note, ‘we had passed through a door and were in a new enchanted world’.
Talking of which, one small disappointment was the presence of just one double bass – who was, however, always rock solid and perfectly audible; but even with a small orchestra one surely needs two or three basses, especially as Beethoven himself apparently preferred to have more basses than cellos.
Nevertheless, this was the most exciting and compelling performance of Beethoven 2 I have heard in a long time, or possibly ever; by this time the orchestra was perfectly in focus and in full steam, and Ben Palmer brought it to life and made sense of the piece in ways I had certainly never heard before. Great concert.
more about the orchestra on their website: http://www.orchestraofstpauls.co.uk/