The 300th anniversary this year of the birth of Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-1786) has prompted a flurry of celebratory concerts and recordings. All of them, including this performance, have emphasised the king’s role in establishing a culture of music-making which had been virtually absent until his ascent to the throne in 1740. But what many commentators have omitted to mention is that Frederick’s own tastes were deeply conservative and firmly hitched to his absolutist agenda.
This was clear in the opening work. Franz Benda’s Symphony in G major is a pleasant enough divertissement, but hardly a work of genius. Benda was a fairly minor composer on the Berlin scene anyway, so it was strange that the Florilegium chose to play his short symphony. Strange, too, that the experienced Bojan Cicic and Sophie Barber wobbled so audibly on their violins.
The disconcerting combination of scratchiness and uncertain pitch also marred the Concerto for flute in D major by Johann Joachim Quantz. At least soloist and Florilegium director Ashley Solomon was on hand to deliver a faultless performance. The opening Allegro was particularly silky and fluid, raising the question of whether the flute-playing Prussian king really had the skill to tackle the parts written for him by his teacher and court composer Quantz.
A fairly disappointing first half improved with two fine arias from Carl Heinrich Graun’s opera Cleopatra and Caesar. Soprano Elin Manahan Thomas has an engaging voice — bright, supple and well controlled, although too light, perhaps, for the strident personality of the legendary Egyptian queen. The mournful ‘Sento mio dolce amore’ was spoiled by more whining on strings, but the livelier ‘Tra le procelle assorto’ fared much better.
The dodgy strings must have been sorted out during the interval, because the ensemble returned in the second half for a splendid performance of CPE Bach’s Concerto for flute in D minor. Although Solomon’s playing lacked the edginess of Bach Junior’s empfindsamkeit style (a sort of early sturm und drang), it did possess enormous drive, which propelled it forward, particularly in the fiendishly difficult final movement. Frederick the Great reputedly distrusted CPE’s unpredictable musical language, preferring the more conventional Graun. Listening to two further arias from Cleopatra and Caesar which rounded off the concert (‘Se avvien che si posi’ and ‘Ah dirti non posso io’), one can see why. Beautifully balanced and attractively Italianate they may be, but they lack the power and challenge of, say, Handel’s operas. And when Elin Manahan Thomas rounded off the evening with an encore aria from Handel’s Julius Caesar, the audience’s appreciation was infinitely greater than it was for the forgotten Graun.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org