OAE/Rattle … Berlioz & Schumann – 1

Berlioz
Overture: King Lear
Schumann
Symphony No.4 in D minor, Op.120 [Original Version]
Symphony No.2 in C, Op.61

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Simon Rattle


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 8 December, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Sir Simon Rattle. Photograph: Stuart Ramson/APIn the first of two concerts that explore a couple of Berlioz’s overtures and four-fifths of Schumann’s symphonies, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment once again displayed near-faultless balance and a range of timbre and texture that are very convincing in the performance of 19th-century (and earlier) music.

In Berlioz’s great dramatic overture (more a tone poem) Sir Simon Rattle seemed determined to bring out every strand of the brilliantly inventive orchestration; if the horns brayed or the trombones cut through they did so without obliterating other details. The grainy-sounding strings at the opening immediately caught the attention, Rattle going on to open up Berlioz’s wild flights of fancy and theatrical vividness – Anthony Robson’s pliant oboe solos a point lyrical beauty – the coda particularly exhilarating.

Schumann’s Fourth Symphony (in its Original Version, and actually his Second) was less successful. It’s a fascinating piece, quixotic and concise. Schumann’s revision is more satisfactory, but his first thoughts may be considered truer of its composer. Rattle relished its unpredictability and individuality; maybe too much so in that it appeared too madcap at times and not always inevitable (the coda to the first movement seemed excitable rather than an organic) and the trio of the scherzo was dawdled and caressed beyond itself.

The wonderful C major Symphony was more convincing, once we had passed a snail’s-pace opening. The main body of the movement was ideal in tempo, with plenty of light, shade, subtlety and surge, Schumann’s emotional turmoil convincingly conveyed and spilling over into a deft and spectral account of the scherzo (antiphonal violins coming into their own) the two trios just a little too manipulated. The heavenly slow movement at least quelled some of the coughers in the audience and the imaginative use of vibrato when strings ‘have the tune’ and its eschewal when woodwinds (beguilingly) took the lead, a movement of Mendelssohnian refrain and an anticipation of ‘Tristan’. The finale – gratefully unforced – lucidly brought this superb piece to crowning fulfilment.


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