A season which has celebrated Henry Wood’s innovations, traditions and achievements closed with a week commemorating his practice of programming single-composer Proms, and after evenings devoted to Wagner and J.S. Bach, now it was Beethoven’s turn. Generally, in Wood’s day, a ‘named composer’ Prom confined the majority of the honoured musician’s music to the first half of the programme, but here Beethoven interweaved with Handel and Bach.
The concert aria ‘Ah! perfido’ for soprano and orchestra was composed when Beethoven was in Prague, on a piano concert tour, in 1796. The first performance was given by renowned soprano Josepha Duschek the following year, but it was not until December 1808 that it was heard in Vienna for the first time – in a marathon concert that included Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies, Fourth Piano Concerto, three movements from the C major Mass, and the Choral Fantasy. Even Wood’s lengthy programmes tended to comprise a long medley of works of a much ‘lighter’ nature!
The Viennese concert didn’t go entirely to plan: the Choral Fantasy unravelled, the heating system in the hall failed, and just as punters were about to expire from the chill Beethoven launched into an extended improvised encore at the piano.
Elizabeth Watts [Photo by Marco Borggreve courtesy of Maxine Robertson Management]
On this occasion, there was no question of any chaos or collapse. Soprano Elizabeth Watts gave a performance of absolute command and control, her tone unwaveringly focused, full and even. She had the measure of both the musical and dramatic demands of this quasi-operatic scena, the text of which is taken from Metastasio’s Achille in Sciro and deals with betrayal, injustice and despair. Watts communicated every twist and turn of emotion, her words of indignation soaring with authority and strength, her outpourings of heartbreak crafted into a line of beauty, the more florid outbursts attacked with passion. ‘Ah! perfido’ is a demanding showpiece and Watts emphasised its impassioned Romantic qualities, occasionally at the expense of the more delicate, Classical moments. But, her performance was an impressively poised tour de force.
Such might and majesty was perhaps less apt for Leonora’s ‘Komm, Hoffnung, laﬂ den letzten Stern der M¸den nicht erbleichen’) from Act 1 of Fidelio, in which Leonora expresses her anger at the evil Pizarro whose plans to murder her husband she has just overheard. But, if the peace within Leonora’s soul was not always evident in Watts’ powerful rendition, then there was no doubting Leonora’s dignity and the sincerity and strength of devotion, and the ardency of her pleas was moving. Leonora’s outraged opening recitative was a flurry of fierce, even bitter, questions, and we could almost feel the heat of the anger and fury that rage in Pizarro’s soul (“dir in der Seele Zorn und Wut”). And, if Watts’ soprano didn’t quite have the transparent gentleness to capture the serenity which supersedes such ferocity, then the focus of Watts’ low-lying line as the vision of the rainbow becalms Leonora’s blood re-established her self-composure, just as the silky aria that followed confirmed the goodness in her heart. Watts’ attention to the words and the shaping of the phrases through carefully placed breaths emphasised the nobility of the melodic line, which gradually became more urgent culminating in an intense declaration of determination to free Florestan.
Andrew Manze. Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.
Leonora’s aria had been preceded by the 1814 version of the Overture to Fidelio in which Manze skilfully ratcheted up the tension in the opening sections before flicking a ‘relax’ button at the start of the Allegro and allowing freedom to sail forth in the form of a warm horn solo. This was a bright and breezy rendition, perhaps neglecting the darker tints, but one which emphasised ebullience and joy. “Hoorah!” cried one Prommer, as the final chord rang in the air.
Manze’s reading of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was similarly vigorous and optimistic. Flinging his loose limbs far and wide, opening his arms to their full, wide span to welcome and embrace the tutti fortissimos, punching his baton at the air, suddenly shrinking inwards to draw his players together in tight piano interplay, Manze – unorthodox, imposing, invigorating – was a captivating sight on the podium: my young guest found his impassioned, sometimes wild, gestures absolutely transfixing, and I was minded of Otto Bˆhler’s silhouettes of Mahler!
But, there is no doubting the efficacy of his extravagant and idiosyncratic style. This Fifth Symphony was probably not one for the purists, nor is it the one I would necessarily choose for my desert island collection, but it was terrifically exciting. Manze signalled his intention to do things his own way right from the start, practically ignoring the fermatas in the second bar and at the close of the first full phrase, denying the doubts and charging forwards in hope-fuelled determination. In this vein, the Andante con moto was a carefree, lazy stroll, the violas and cellos introducing the theme with complete ease – not a figurative furrowed brow in sight. Again, one might have wished for a little more sombreness – the harmonic shadows were readily, even defiantly, pushed aside – but Manze’s approach inspired a consoling sanguinity which was troubled only by the bronchial Prommers who seemed to have more than their fair share of autumnal agues.
Similarly, the entry of the horns’ confident theme after the strings’ initial tentative climbs at the start of the Scherzo swept away any clouds of uncertainty – I’d have challenged any listener not to smile each time the theme reappeared with a cheeky sway in its step. After a bracing fugue, the movement segued seamlessly and with a gleaming roar into the final movement which raced home, fuelled by affection, spiritedness and sunny assurance.
Beethoven had not got proceedings underway, though; that fell to Handel, whose Music for the Royal Fireworks opened the Prom in grandiose style, Manze conceiving of the movements in extended, far-reaching sweeps. We also heard Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in C minor BWV 537 as arranged by Elgar, with Manze emphasising the lyricism of the Fantasia, though not always clearly defining the relationship between the voices – something that he did much more successfully in the Fugue, articulating the colossal architecture of Elgar’s transcription.
We came full circle with the encore: the Lentement and BourÈe from Suite No.2 in D major from Handel’s Water Music, as arranged by Hamilton Harty. Like their fellow musicians from Bremen last week, the players showed the joy that their shared music-making had brought them as they left the platform, embracing and shaking hands. Such heart-warming, uplifting gestures are beginning to look decidedly European.
Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Andrew Manze (conductor), NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover
Prom 74: Handel – Music for the Royal Fireworks; Beethoven – Aria, ‘Ah! perfido’; J.S. Bach – Fantasia and Fugue in C minor BWV 537 Op.86 (orch. Edward Elgar); Beethoven – Fidelio, Overture and ‘Abscheulicher! … Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern’, Symphony No.5 in C minor.
Royal Albert Hall, London; Friday 13th September 2019.
product_title=Prom 74: Beethoven Night – the Radiophilharmonie Hannover conducted by Andrew Manze
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Elizabeth Watts (soprano)
Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou