Saturday, 17 August 2019

Queen Victoria's 200th Birthday Prom - Mendelssohn, Fischer, OAE, Hough

BBC Prom 40, marking the 200th annivesary of the birth of Queen Victoria,with Ádám Fischer and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and Mendelssohn, Piano Concerto no 1 in G minor (Stephen Hough) and Symphony no 3 "The Scottish", with Arthur Sullivan's suite on Victoria and Merrie England and a set of songs by Prince Albert himself (Alessandro Fisher, tenor).  An apposite reminder of how much British music and culture owes to the friendship betwen the Queen, the Prince Consort and Felix Mendelssohn. Victoria was the only heir of a large family of princes more prone to profligacy than cultivation. Being young and isolated, she might have been easy prey for the rich and powerful, married off to someone more interested in his own fortunes than to the fortunes of her country.  Luckily, in Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, she chose a man with a background as illustrious as her own, and even more fortuitously, a man enlightened by the ideals of the Romantc sensibility, who believed that culture was fundamental to progress, and that education and the arts are as valuable to a nation as economic growth.  Imagine if she'd married a gammon! Her horizons, like his, were European, and forward-looking, and she knew good music. In the Giclée print above, she's seen admiring Albert at the organ (with Mendelssohn looking on) "playing so charmingly, clearly and correctly that it would have been credit to any professional". 

To emphasize the difference between the early Victorian era, when Victoria and Albert were together, and the late period, when Albert was long gone, Fischer and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment began the Prom with Arthur Sullivan's Victoria and Merrie England - ballet suite No 1. Two very different artistic sensilibilities indeed. The ballet was very popular in its time (1897), full of colourful scenes and dances. The Queen and her family attended but times had changed.  It's jolly, almost a throwback to popular entertainment : comfort music for the satisfied middle classes, with references to an idealized past, with dutiful patriotic references. The world of the early Romantic period with its soul searching and idealism is very far away. 

In contrast, Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto no 1 in G minor , Stephen Hough playing an 1856 Érard commissioned for Victoria and Albert who used it regularly when they made music in private.  The sound is very different to the sound of a modern concert grand. The leatrher hammers are encased in felt, the registers brighter, more "singing" than pounding. The keys are narrower, requiring lighter, more agile performance technique. Earlier this year, Kristian Bezuidenhout used a slightly earlier Érard when he played Mendelssohn's  Double Concerto for Piano, Violin, and Strings with Sir John Eliot Gardiner (please read more here),  demonstrating how the instruments Mendelssohn used influenced his compositional development.  Since Stephen Hough doesn't normally play early instruments, his approach wasn't as fluid as a specialist like Bezuidenhout, but Fischer and the OAE supported him with verve. I quite liked the tension between piano and orchestra.  The five Lieder by Prince Albert : Gruss aus der Ferne, Standchen, Gruss an den Bruder, Aus Wilhelm Meister and  Lebewohl were far more conventional, composed as they were for private performance, albeit by somewhat above average amateurs. The soloist was Alessandro Fisher.  

With Mendelssohn Symphony No 3 in A minor, Op 56 (Scottish), Fischer and the OAE returned to the almost symbiotic relationship betwee The Queen, Prince Albert and Mendelssohn.  Compared with his privileged upbringing in Berlin, Scotland must have been primitive wilderness, in a era before tourism, without mod cons. But that was the attraction. To early Romantics, Scotland symbolized an escape from the constraints of respectable civilization, where Nature challenged mankind, liberating creative imagination.  Mendelssohn knew Scotland long before Victoria did. His influence may have helped shape her later love for the country and the freedom it represented.  The first movement began with a hush, evoking the mystery that ruins evoked in the Romantic psyche. The pace picked up, with ebullience : nothing meek about the Romantic sense of adventure. The moments of calm made the "storm" in the allegro un poco agitato loom up impressively. Perhaps those soaring chords might also suggest mountains : Fischer certainly didn't stint on intensity.  "Outdoors" freedom in the second movement with its suggestions of energetic Highland dance, ending with figure suggesting hunting horn : a nod to the forests of Middle Europe. Fischer's Adagio was firmly sculpted ; suggesting strength and deliberation, contrasting well with the more feminine melody which might signify Mary Queen of Scots or some doomed heroine. The final movement began briskly,  the brightness of the OAE sound gloriously vivid. "Vivacissimo" gradually becomes "molto assai". What might this signify? The manic energy faded to an anthem, where strong figures again rang forth, now with exuberant triumph.  Blazing finale!  

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