The new year brings an unusual conjunction to Scottish concert halls, with both the SCO and the RSNO performing suites from Rameau's operas. Interestingly, in both cases these performances visited third cities – Aberdeen and Perth respectively – as well as their normal Edinburgh and Glasgow shows.
One suspects collusion, and maybe a few more instances of complementary programming would be a welcome development, without needing, necessarily, to bloom into full-blown thematic strands, festivals, seasons and the like.
What's interesting about both the Rameau and the Handel is that the original performance context for these composers was far removed from the modern concert-hall ambience familiar to us – a case, perhaps, of trickle-down aesthetics. The Water Music suites were composed for a junket on the Thames taking King George I from Westminster to Chelsea for supper and back. Hamilton Harty arranged some of these into a single set which became popular in the last century, and this performance also made selections. The full set of suites, at a few minutes short of the hour, probably outstays its welcome, while to choose between the suites would be invidious.
Sporting trumpets and horns as well as a complement of flute, oboes and bassoons, this was the largest orchestra of the evening, giving a performance of splendid elemental vigour under Emmanuelle Haïm's direction. The Rigaudons in particular might well have sunk the barge, so lively were they.
Indeed vivacity is one of the hallmarks, too, of Rameau's output. It was not just the scholarly innovativeness of his first opera Hippolyte et Aricie that won him his reputation as the preeminent operatic composer of his time, but its inexhaustible inventiveness. So too with Dardanus: there are plenty of instrumental interludes that make it a simple task to assemble a generously populated suite.
As with Handel's Rigaudon, Rameau's tambourines stole the show with their driving energy, abetted by some ferocious drumming from the percussion quarter. The only shortcoming was that in the numbers using the recorder, its mild timbre couldn’t really be heard above the strings, even though they were hardly playing above a mezzoforte.
That matter illustrates neatly the distinction between period performance and historically-informed performance, the former using contemporary materials – gut strings, slightly lower tunings and so on as well as aiming to adopt appropriate techniques and styles – while the latter confines itself to the technical and stylistic aspects. While theScottish Chamber Orchestra frequently uses natural trumpets and horns for the classical repertoire, they were using modern instruments here and at the Bach Christmas Oratorios back in December. The recorder, though, doesn’t have a modern, louder equivalent.
That mattered not in the Handel Cantata which followed, as the recorder's moments were against a much lighter scoring. Il Delirio Amoroso is a rather wonderful work all round. Few composers other than Mozart have Handel's gift for making composition sound so simple and easy, while lacing his scores with demands that can catch a musician unawares.
The tale told by this cantata is that of Clori, who undertakes a visit to Hades as a kind of female equivalent of Orpheus in pursuit of Thyrsis, a fellow who evidently did not relish the attention, though they wind up, to Clori's satisfaction, in Elysium eventually. Handel tackles his text with gusto, resulting in a delightful score full of melodic invention and fascinating texture, alternating between full orchestra and reduced ensembles that gave the bass instruments the opportunity to shine. In front of this, Camilla Tilling gave a captivating performance in the solo role. She held court in a manner that more modern works for voice and orchestra do not afford.
As a much-appreciated encore, Tilling, Haïm and the orchestra gave us Les Sauvages from Rameau's Les Indes Gallantes to round off a memorable evening.
Photo: Toomas Volkmann