Alastair Macaulay: This music is just too good for danceAlastair Macaulay
Alastair Macaulay returns with his ongoing Slippedisc reviews of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s 75th season:
Philharmonia Orchestra Sunday 16 January 3pm Bach, Haydn, Mozart
by Alastair Macaulay
With its Sunday afternoon concert at the Royal Festival Hall, the Philharmonia Orchestra began 2022 in the eighteenth century – that’s
to say, with Bach, Haydn, and Mozart, three of the greatest composers of all time. The conductor was the Belgian master of pre-Romantic
music, Philippe Herreweghe. Its soloist, for Haydn’s cello concerto no 1 in C major op. 30, was Steven Isserlis.
Though only a few instruments were baroque-style – notably trumpets and kettledrums – the orchestra’s whole sound was transformed: bright, lean, spruce. The woodwind were superlative. Not lean by eighteenth-century standards.
The concert began with Bach’s fourth orchestral suite, BWV 1069 in D major, which opens with one of Bach’s most stunningly orchestrated chords. Those trumpets sound like ceremonial fanfares over gorgeously long-held harmonies. Kettledrums, part of the rich texture, take a highly deliberate pace (far more so than in Bach’s third suite). It’s the strings and woodwind that then make us feel ground shifting beneath our feet and that the light is changing dramatically with every second.
Herreweghe, who will be seventy-five this year, conducts with wonderfully relaxed fingers, elbows, and knees. Often it’s as if he’s
an onlooker, calmly observing a natural process, responding gently to it with little sways of the torso and pelvis. Now and then, he leads a phrase with an incisive but small movement of the right hand. Sometimes an orchestral figure seems to ripple right down him from
wrist to heel. Once past the long Ouverture, this suite addresses successive French dance forms of Bach’s day: Bourrée, Gavotte, and Minuet, before the final Réjouissance. Bach handles these with terrific energy: the dance pulse is always brisk. Yet this isn’t music for the dance floor; especially in this suite, Bach is invoking dance only to transcend it – he’s seeing the dancing of the spheres.
A similarly brisk, firm pulse begins Haydn’s first cello concerto. The relationship of cello and orchestra here continually switches
courses. Now the soloist weaves slower or faster lines around the ensemble, now he becomes the propulsive main event to which the
orchestra lends a rhythmic accompaniment.
With Isserlis, long, single notes (usually sustained without vibrato) again and again became thrilling tension on top of the orchestral procedure. Elsewhere he was the motor, the furnace that drove the concerto. He did lose some suspense in the middle of the second movement – but then re-established his spell with a superbly contemplative, varied cadenza, after which he drove surely home all the way.
The concert ended with Mozart’s Symphony no 39 in E flat major K543. This is one of the masterpieces in which the composer is testing how much drama and violence the symphonic form can take without losing elegance and wit. Not unlike Bach in that fourth suite, he starts
with thunderingly potent chords for full orchestra, with drums; he, too, then uses his strings to transform the mood, in this case with
celestial, downward-cascading scales. Herreweghe effected this with a magical blend of delicacy and power.
This symphony keeps returning to a sense of tragic crisis, but from many different perspectives. Both the lyrical and the numinous
aspects of Mozart are here; idyllic sequences are threatened by the sense of crisis. The music is quietest in the second movement, when
phrases cross from side to side of the orchestra with question-and-answer-like connection, without reaching any real resolution.
The third movement alternates two kind of three-quarter rhythm: a marvellously thumping rustic one and something altogether gentler,
even consoling. Humour is never absent here – yet force ends up winning the day. The main melodic phrase, though, ends with a steady ascent: Herreweghe gave this a beautiful diminuendo, as if it showed something rising out of sight. And the final movement is a
triumph of energy. Tragedy and fun co-exist, force with finesse. Herreweghe drove it like a winning charioteer who never breaks
Nietzsche, in one of his complaints about Wagner, argued that you couldn’t dance to Wagner’s music as you could to anything by Mozart. I’ve hitherto accepted that idea. Not any more after this concert. As early as Bach, German-Austrian composers were thinking of dance rhythms not for feet but for mind and soul. These men were writing dance music too sublime for anyone to dance to.
Alastair Macaulay is the former chief dance critic of the New York Times.