Taking operatic tunes as inspiration for Harmoniemusik was nothing new in Mozart’s time. He even references his own The Marriage of Figaro in the supper scene of Don Giovanni, where Leporello is sneakily trying to stuff down some pheasant pinched from his master’s table when the wind band wheezes into Figaro’s “Non più andrai”. Directed by Emmanuelle Haïm, French period instrument ensemble Le Concert d'Astrée served up a few choice cuts of Figaro Harmoniemusik themselves before a delicious main course of the Gran Partita – tasty fare played with a distinctly Gallic accent.

Emmanuelle Haïm © Opéra de Lille | Simon Gosselin
Emmanuelle Haïm
© Opéra de Lille | Simon Gosselin

What made these Viennese classics sound so French? It’s partly the oboe – slightly nasal and vinegary – and the parched bassoon tone, but mainly the way the ensemble refuses to coalesce into a rounded, homogenous whole, but keeps a distinctive character, where each pair of instruments retains its particular flavour. There was also the occasionally unruly discipline – despite Haïm’s presence as a conductor – which meant that a few entries were frayed at the edges.

Alfredo Bernardini’s Figaro arrangements (for Ensemble Zefiro) are for a larger wind band than usual Harmoniemusik, employing all thirteen players required for the Gran Partita after the interval. They’re extremely witty, especially the interpolated high notes for clarinet in “Se vuol ballare” and the “pass-the-parcel” solo exchanges in “Non più andrai”, including Axel Bouchaux’s rasping double bass.

Haïm’s clenched fist conducting, left hand often hanging idle by her side, was non-interventionist. It was arguable whether Le Concert d’Astrée required a conductor at all in this repertoire. “Sull’aria” needed a little more time to breathe, but the perky Act III march was tautly shaped. Applause between numbers enabled a few changes of plumbing for the quartet of horns, crooks dangling from their music stand like gaudy bangles.

If Harmoniemusik provides agreeable dining music, it’s impossible to think of doing anything during the Serenade no. 10 in B flat major K361, commonly known as the Gran Partita. It is an utterly gorgeous work. In a famous scene in the late Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus – currently playing a sold out run at the National Theatre – the composer Antonio Salieri leafs through the score of the Serenade. Reminiscing, the older Salieri, having attempted suicide, provides a musical commentary as the strains of the Adagio are heard. It is a haunting description:

“Extraordinary! On the page it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse - bassoons and basset horns - like a rusty squeezebox. Then suddenly - high above it - an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight!”

To Salieri, in Shaffer’s play at least, it was the voice of God and its sheer beauty staggered once again last night – taken by Haïm at a nimble pace, playing out like an operatic duet between oboe and clarinet, gorgeously played by Patrick Beaugiraud and Toni Salar Verdu respectively. The trio of the first minuet was another standout – just clarinets and basset horns – circling in velvet caramel swirls.

Elsewhere, Haïm did not always fully tease out the Largo introduction but there was real zip to the Molto allegro section of the opening movement. Sometimes opening the palm of her left hand to beckon particular players, she introduced some wicked pauses to halt the melodic line in the second minuet’s trio section and the garrulous finale had plenty of punch. A rich feast, all washed down with Don Giovanni’s Champagne Aria as a vivacious encore.

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