A fall season pleasingly plein de French music continued at La Maison Française on Tuesday night, with a concert by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. The high point of the program turned out, as expected, to be the performance of French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras as soloist in the C major cello concerto (Hob. VIIb:1) by Haydn. Queyras's recording of the Haydn concertos on a Baroque instrument, made a few years ago with the Freiburger Barockorchester, was glowingly received, and this had the same decorous, genteel sound. By comparison to the last performance of the work in our ears, that of Pieter Wispelwey with the Australian Chamber Orchestra last year, it was that much more pleasant to hear for being far less robust and rustic. Queyras's tone, by no means tepid, was distinguished by warmth more than force. He took a crisp approach, with admirable lightness in off-the-string sections and sparing vibrato even high on the A string. He also tended to smooth out the multi-stops and added many pleasing but minor embellishments.
Haydn, Cello Concertos, J.-G. Queyras, Freiburger Barockorchester
Queyras even created his own cadenza for the first movement, one which wryly incorporated, with seamless ingenuity, the opening notes of La Marseillaise as a tribute to his concitoyens in the embassy that sits, after all, on French soil. After a ravishing and wholly unaffected second movement, in which the orchestra did a good job of mostly just staying out of the way, the group launched into a darting, very fast rendition of the third movement. Unfortunately, the house lights coming up early appeared to convince the audience, full but not to capacity, to stop applauding, which deprived us of a solo encore. Tant pis pour nous!
The COOP did not exactly measure up to the Freiburger Barockorchester, but the intentions behind the group's performance were rather different. The concerto and another Haydn selection, Symphony No. 8 (programmed for the first time in the ensemble's history), showed the group in the best light. Le Soir, as it is known (the evening part of a trilogy devoted to the times of day), featured well-played solos from the string principals and especially the principal flute in the first movement. The menuetto, taken at a fairly rapid pace, was jolly, with a decent rendition of the intentionally absurd solo for double-bass. The tempest in the fourth movement rollicked with buzzing tremolos.
David Patrick Stearns, Pianist Tharaud, cellist Queyras hit unexpected marks (Philadelphia Inquirer, October 29)
The smiles among the players in the Haydn selections showed a preference for this music, reinforced by the unnuanced, bland sound they produced on the French selections, two Rameau arrangements and the ballet suite from Lully's Le Triomphe de l'Amour. Normally, I would welcome the chance to hear that much Lully, but what I did hear (I arrived late, through a misreading of the start time) fell flat and colorless. Part of the blame goes to guest conductor Rudolf Werthen, standing in for the ensemble's relatively new music director, Ignat Solzhenitsyn (who happens to be a son of the author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and teaches piano at the Curtis Institute). Persistent intonation clashes, especially in the violin section, seemed due only to uncharacteristic carelessness.
The next concert at La Maison Française will feature Opera Lafayette in yet more Haydn, cantatas performed by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Houtzeel, as well as music by Handel, who will also be the focus of an important anniversary in 2009.