In celebration of several nice-round-number anniversaries and backed by the sponsorship of the German Embassy, the Chamber Music Society of Colombo, under the direction of Lakshman Joseph de Saram, brought its 2009 season to a close with an evening of musical champagne (or whatever the EUSSR makes them call the bubbly in Berlin).
After a riskily majestic ‘Andante maestoso’ preamble, Haydn’s ‘Overture’ to the seragliopera L’incontro improvviso burst loose in the ‘Presto’ (cue little faux-Oriental percussion touches) in a tangible explosion of pent-up energy. The urgent drive towards the cadences was gripping, and the repetitive sections – for such there will always be in Haydn – persistently, insistently fresh.
There was at once a fuller, darker texture to Mendelssohn’s early String Symphony No.3 in E minor (i.e. the cellos actually had a musical line, not just a series of bass notes): if you weren’t already sitting comfortably then this definitely wasn’t your chance. The ten-minute melodic and harmonic work-out had fire not just in its belly, but in its maw as well. The ‘Andante’ second movement was more gentle, a classical Classical theme more vapour trails than entrails. But the closing ‘Allegro’ turned the entrails into extrails, as fingers trilled vigorously and bows jagged across the strings. What with the tutti chordal steps and the embellished counterpoint, it seemed altogether more like a Händel overture…
This was a string-dominated programme, and, to my shame, somewhere amid the excerpts from Händel’s Hercules, I fleetingly wondered if five cellos (and two basses) was/were too many. But Händel bass-lines are where half the fun is at, and it was appropriately Herculean to see seven violinists obliged to do the work of 20 (Hercules may have done all his chores on time, but that doesn’t make him some flute-playing mummy’s boy).
The dainty concertante moments in the ‘Menuetto’ – on cello, violin, viola, flute and oboe – offered a brief variation of palette, before all hell broke loose in the hair-raising ‘Sinfonia’. With its mournful theme strained and splayed almost to breaking point and interspersed with outbursts of frantic rage (courtesy Mrs Hercules), the CMSC’s performance was a masterwork of coordination and inherent musicianship.
Nobody was going to sneak out during this interval. Always leave them wanting more, they say…
And then give them some, say I. The opening chords of the ‘Overture’ to Agrippina were so violent they actually elicited an echo from the Wendt (perhaps surprisingly, the venue really seemed to embrace the sound: it was like a proper C.18th salon gig, but with air-con!). The orchestra, wreaking the kind of emotional havoc that befits Händel’s heroine – sister of Caligula, niece (and wife) of Claudius, mother of Nero – stormed from one extreme to the other, and by the time they reached the oboist’s plaintive Orphean line, the audience was pin-drop silent, my heart was thumping and the violinists were blinking sweat out of their eyes. De Saram mopped his brow amid profound applause.
The nicknames of Haydn symphonies (the ‘Drum Roll’, most famously) are usually pretty tenuous, and often have no recorded authorial veracity, so during Haydn’s Symphony No.82 in C Major (‘L’ours’ or ‘The Bear’) I amused myself considering potential origins for the movements and thinking up headline-friendly puns (though I could bearly come up with any, which gave me paws: I didn’t want to panda to anyone, or end up making a complete urse of myself).
‘The Bear’ itself, though, was suitably boisterous. The ‘Menuet’ gave the impression that he was touring with a miserable provincial circus (the fault is Haydn’s; but did you know they train them to ‘dance’ by setting the cubs on hot coals?); the weighty bass uprisings depicted him, I hoped, sundering his chains and eating the circus master; and in the vivace ‘Finale’ – a summery peasant dance with a Slavic drone and cartoonish cameos from the village band – the horsehair flew (bear fur is illegal) – and what remained attached to the bow waged merry war against the stomach of the cat and the thunder of the cowskin.
I can recall one instance when the cellos rushed slightly, a couple of rudderless moments when the second violins and violas were left to their own, and by the ‘Finale’ the bassoon was sadly out of tune (giving our poor bear chronic indigestion). But, in vindication of the CMSC’s conductor-less policy, there was never a hint of hesitation, and the tenutos and other refined musical ephemera were symptomatic not only of the highest quality leadership – and followership, come to that – but of a rare level of discipline and cohesion.