Étienne-Nicolas Méhul's music isn't familiar to most concert-goers. The only work which I know is his First Symphony, the finale of which contains a motif so similar to the opening movement of Beethoven's Fifth that Robert Schumann, hearing it in Leipzig in 1838, remarked upon the likeness. However, Méhul and Beethoven were composing their works at exactly the same time, so neither was filching from the other. Méhul died in 1817 and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, along with the enterprising Palazzetto Bru Zane, the Venetian foundation for promoting rare French music, used this bicentenary to showcase his music in a varied and entertaining programme.

Michael Spyres © Belinda Lawley
Michael Spyres
© Belinda Lawley

There is a revolutionary fervour about much of Méhul's music, perhaps not surprising given he became a great pal of Napoleon Bonaparte. These taut and breathless Sturm und Drang qualities were leapt upon by the OAE under an enthusiastic Jonathan Cohen in the dramatic overture to Les Amazones, bristling with pent-up anger. It was an opera whose première descended into farce when the singer player Jupiter missed his cue to mount a chariot descending from the flies, causing the Emperor to weep with laughter. No such disasters befell the overture here, given a punchy reading. Tangy woodwind chords and fierce timpani volleys graced the single surviving movement of Méhul's Fifth Symphony in grand period style. 

It wasn't all Méhul though. His music was placed into context with excerpts from Mozart, Gluck, Rodolphe Kreutzer and Salieri, a fiery Dance of the Furies being a highlight. Beethovenian fire was evident elsewhere (Méhul was born six years earlier) but there were also hints of Cherubini in some of Méhul's operatic writing. And it was the operatic excerpts which had doubtless drawn many of the audience to St John's Smith Square, enticed by the prospect of hearing American tenor Michael Spyres.

There was a slight sense of anticlimax when a different tenor – John Irvin – emerged for the first Méhul aria, then a dawning that the programme would be shared between the two singers. Irvin has a golden sound and would make a fine Mozartian. There was a slightly bottled quality to his aria from Mélidore et Phrosine, but his upper register opened up excellently in an aria from Uthal. Composed in 1806, Uthal is particularly striking in that no violins are employed during the whole opera, designed to conjure up an atmosphere of mists and heather for its Scottish setting. In his often witty Les Soirées de l'orchestre, Berlioz criticised the effect as “more wearisome than poetic”. Méhul would have expected all the violinists in the orchestra to turn to the viola. Here, the OAE violinists were given a rest, but with only six violas used, the grainy sound lacked richness of numbers.

John Irvin and the OAE © Belinda Lawley
John Irvin and the OAE
© Belinda Lawley

It was clever programming to add Florestan's “Gott! Welch dunkel hier!” from Fidelio to set Beethoven alongside Méhul, though Michael Spyres had a few dicey moments with the gear changes towards the end. Spyres' tenor has a remarkable quality though, perfect for Méhul's haute-contre roles. There is plenty of metal in the voice, but also baritonal heft at the lower end. In arias from Euphrosine and Ariodant, Spyres was on thrilling form. Méhul's writing pre-empts much of Berlioz's writing for tenor – hoisting him into a vertiginous tessitura and keeping him there for phrase after phrase. Thankfully, Spyres thrives at altitude, though doubtless the OAE's lower pitch (A = 430 Hz) helped. Othon's “O Dieux écoutez ma prière” from Ariodant made a stirring finale, followed by a beautifully phrased “Amour, si je succombe” from the same opera as a balmy encore.