The Return of Tobias, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Venus and Adonis, Wilton's Music Hall, London
The Nash Ensemble, Wigmore Hall, London
Haydn's song of praise for the family he never had
Sunday 15 February 2009
It takes a major anniversary to justify a performance of The Return of Tobias. Critically acclaimed at its 1775 premiere, Haydn's Italian oratorio gives little hint of the meteorological and zoological detail he would later lavish on The Creation and The Seasons. Save for a smattering of Sturm und Drang in the overture, and a sequence of searing dissonances asTobias's blind father, Tobit, recoils from the sun, this is a domestic oratorio: a simple story of a loving, gentle family, written by an unhappily married, childless composer.
Even in the reduced 1784 version, Tobias is profoundly undramatic. Where other composers might have described the apochryphal hero's battle with an algae-covered water-monster, Haydn focused his attention on Anna (Ann Hallenburg) as a tender-hearted yiddishe momme, fretting about her son's potentially unsuitable marriage to Sara (Lucy Crowe) and gently nagging Tobit (Christopher Maltman) to take it easy. Sara has a marshmallow heart and marshmallow orchestration (cor anglais, flutes, oboe and horns), while brave Tobias (Andrew Kennedy) is tickled pink to have found a wife so like his mother. Thankfully, the angel Raffaelle (Rachel Nicholls) is at hand to lend some pep in coloratura that looks back to the great Baroque oratorios. Though handsomely sung, and elegantly played by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment under Roger Norrington's increasingly impressionistic beat, Tobias is less a forgotten masterpiece than a touching reminder of its composer's loneliness and, perhaps, a warning against anniversary-led completism.
In a wink to another of this year's anniversaries, Netia Jones prefaced Transition Opera's hot-pink production of John Blow's Venus and Adonis with a staged sequence of Purcell songs set at a speed-dating event. Small details of courtship – crossed and re-crossed ankles, fluttering eyelashes, nervous smiles – were projected on screens as the lonely hearts changed tables (and songs) to the click of Cupid's stopwatch. First performed in 1682, Blow's opera provided a model for his pupil's Dido and Aeneas, from its G-minor tonality to its chromatic bass-lines and sexually charged duets. Long-legged and soft-voiced, Katherine Manley's Paris Hilton-like Venus presided over a trio of Graces whose dancing silhouettes moved between Canova classicism and the 1970s sass of Charlie's Angels, while Dawid Kimberg's strapping Adonis donned hunting pink and Andrew Radley's waspish Cupid instructed his apprentices. Like Cupid, Jones's production disdained "the ugly and the old", venerating glamour over beauty, cleverness over depth. But the lament still packed a mighty punch and the video of Adonis's stumbling steed was powerful. Led by soprano Elizabeth Weisberg, the ensemble singing had bite and style, while harpsichordist Christian Curnyn's tiny orchestra played suavely.
Written in Spillville, Iowa, in the summer of 1893, Dvorák's String Quintet in E flat was the centrepiece of the penultimate concert of The Nash Ensemble's series, From My Homeland. At that time, Spillville was the furthest Dvorák had ever been from his homeland since moving to America, yet in other ways it was the closest. In this small community of Czech settlers the composer could uwind with a hand of darda and speak his native tongue. Ease and comfort suffuse the music, and while the source of the melodies is contentious, the tone is more Bohemian than Kiikaapo. Here, and in the intense concentrate of Janácek's Kreutzer Sonata and the lyrical introspection of Brahms's Clarinet Quintet, the playing of Marianne Thorsen, Malin Broman, Lawrence Power, Philip Dukes, Paul Watkin and Richard Hosford was incisive, transparent and beautifully shaped. Chamber music doesn't come any better.
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