Sunday, 15 September 2019

Prom 74: Beethoven Night is Back - imaginative programming from Andrew Manze and NDR Radiophilharmonie, Hanover

Prom 74 - NDR Radiophilharmonie, Andrew Manze, Elizabeth Watts - BBC Proms (Photo Chris Christodoulou / BBC)
Prom 74 - NDR Radiophilharmonie, Andrew Manze, Elizabeth Watts
BBC Proms (Photo Chris Christodoulou / BBC)
Handel Music for the Royal Fireworks,
Beethoven Concert Aria, "Ah Perfido!",
Bach (arr. Elgar) Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV537,
Beethoven Fidelio, Overture and 'Abscheulicher!', Symphony No. 5;
Elizabeth Watts (soprano),
NDR Radiophilharmonie Hanover/Andrew Manze;
BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall

Reviewed by Colin Clarke on 13 September 2019
Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)

Coupling Beethoven’s music with that of two of his great musical heroes, Handel and Bach

Friday the 13th (13 September 2019) brought a Proms tradition – Beethoven Night – back to life with a visit from the North German Radio (Norddeutscher Rundfunk) orchestra, Hanover under their Chief Conductor since 2014, Andrew Manze, with soprano Elizabeth Watts. Coupling Beethoven’s music with that of two of his great musical heroes, Handel and Bach, was effective and imaginative programming.

Initially associated with early music, Manze was a member of the group Romanesca; in 1996 he was appointed as Associate Conductor and Director of the Academy of Ancient Music. Manze’s contract with The NDR Hannover Orchestra has been extended until Summer 2023, and it is easy to see how the orchestra admires him and responds well to him. Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks was given a surprisingly smooth, even gentle reading, the 'Largo alla siciliana', also called 'La paix' actually fairly indulgent, although rescued by a pronounced linear awareness. Perhaps 'La Rejouissance' could have been more festive, although that was in keeping with the rest of the performance. It was Handel, too, who provided the final pieces of the concert, in encore form: two movements from the Water Music Suite in G.

In between was a rare outing of Beethoven’s Concert Aria, 'Ah, perfido!'. Young man’s music (written aged 25), this was the point at which the whole evening went up a notch or two. Elizabeth Watts was a superb interpreter, pure and smooth at 'Per pietà,' properly agitated at 'Ah, crudel!'. The opening section (the bit with the text by Metastasio) was superbly accompanied by Manze, the orchestra light but presenting great detail. It was difficult to imagine a greater contrast than the Bach/Elgar Fantasia and Fugue in C minor (BWV 537). No missing the Elgarian sheen to the Fantasia; this is echt-Prom material. If the ear does have to adjust to that harp, there is no denying the effectiveness of the timpani heartbeat. All this was brilliantly delivered by Manze’s forces; impossible to ignore, too, the cheeky flourishes of the cymbal.

Two Fidelio excerpts formed the opening of the second part of the concert, the Overture light in the opening exchanges, lithe in the faster section. Clarity again at a premium, the performance was nevertheless a touch underpowered; not a criticism that could be levelled at the superb 'Abscheulicher!' that followed, Watts absolutely inside the role (how she enjoyed the “sch” sound of 'Abscheulicher') supported by a fine set of horns, individuals all in their solos and yet as one when required.

And so to the Fifth. That word again – “lithe.” Fast, light, exposition repeat intact, the woodwind/strings exchanges scrupulously observed. The most mesmeric moments of the evening were contained in a beautiful plateau of chords in the 'Andante con moto', revelatory in their spectral demeanour. The scampering double-basses of the Scherzo were a true delight alongside bullet-hard timpani, the transition to the finale intelligent rather than apocalyptic. The finale’s ebb and flow enabled a more variegated landscape than most, enabling moments of an almost startling tenderness. The coda, fast but not pressed, seemed perfectly in accord with Manze’s interpretation: enlightening, intelligent and ultimately more satisfying than any dash to the finishing line.
Reviewed by Colin Clarke

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