It is always nice to see Baroque music on the concert programmes of symphony orchestras, if for no other reason than aural relief from the behemoths of the 19th and 20th centuries that make up the overwhelming majority of programming today. It was even more pleasing to see a programme featuring Rameau, a composer who is almost criminally underrepresented in concerts in Oslo. Save a few bits of awkward programming, the concert proved an invigorating experience, proving that a modern orchestra still can and should play old music.

Harry Bicket © Richard Haughton
Harry Bicket
© Richard Haughton

Framing two sets of arias by Händel and Mozart, respectively, were two suites from Rameau’s operas Platée and Les Boréades. The suite from Platée opened with an “Orage”, a storm, kicking off the concert in a suitably tempestuous fashion. A wind machine proved a delightful addition to the orchestra, as it would too in the “Suite des vents” in the later Boréades set. Platée was Rameau’s first and only comic opera, and nowhere was that more apparent than in the “Airs pour des fous gais et tristes” (“Airs for the happy and the sad fools”), with the addition of not-so-very-subtle downward glissandi in the strings. The following minuets were also aggressively graceful. Bickett’s conducting seemed to be done with a permanently affixed wry smile, and appropriately so! The Oslo Philharmonic delivered impressively cleanly articulated playing, especially in the many fiendish runs that permeated the faster movements. Still, the sound was too top-heavy, and the violins often drowned out the winds, especially when playing in unison.

For the first half of his programme, countertenor David Hansen performed “Scherza infida” and “Dopo notte” from Handel’s Ariodante. The choice of these two arias came as something of a surprise, seeing as this music is generally left alone by countertenors, due to its high tessitura. As Hansen strode out on stage, he looked rather nervous, something which became even more apparent with a dramatically bland opening recitative. “Scherza infida” is a lament sung by the character Ariodante as he hears of the supposed infidelity of his beloved Ginevra, and it is full of long, sinewy phrases and painful dissonances. Not only does the singer have to support these long phrases for almost ten minutes, but the aria sits rather high, and Hansen struggled with this throughout. While he has high notes in spades, having to sustain them through Handel’s long, slowly moving phrases did not seem comfortable.

Even though there is a definite plangent side to the aria, Ariodante still sings of revenge in the B section. Hansen sang “Scherza infida” resignedly, almost as if he’d given up any thought of vengeance. A touch more determination could have been called for. He luckily fared better in the second of the two Ariodante arias, “Dopo notte”. This joyful, flamboyantly virtuosic aria found Hansen in his element, with effortless, clean coloratura and plenty of opportunities for high notes. The ornaments he added in the repeat of the A section were nothing short of breathtaking.

The strangest items on the programme were Cherubino’s two arias from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. The role of Cherubino, a boy just at the onset of puberty is usually sung by a mezzo-soprano, and the cognitive dissonance of having these arias sung by a fully grown man sporting three-day stubble was all too present. While Hansen sounded well at ease in “Non so più cosa son”, the higher register of “Voi, che sapete” sounded strained and uncomfortable. Still, he seemed able to loosen up and relax during this second half, and although Hansen might not look like a thirteen-year-old, his mannerisms were certainly reminiscent of one.

The final suite of dances from Les Boréades, Rameau’s final opera, proved an invigorating end to the concert. The suite was deftly put together by Harry Bicket himself, and showcased some brilliant playing from the Oslo Phil. Especially commendable was the horn playing; the first horn part in Les Boréades is infamously tortuous, but aside from the very odd flub, it was carried off admirably. I still missed the directness of natural horns, but that is another matter. Another welcome addition to the orchestra was clarinets, sounding positively exotic in this repertoire, so dominated by string and double reed sonorities.