OAE/Rattle … Berlioz & Schumann – 2

Overture: Les francs-juges, Op.3
Symphony No.1 in B flat, Op.38 (Spring)
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.97 (Rhenish)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 9 December, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Sir Simon Rattle. Photograph: Stuart Ramson/APThere were a few enhancements to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for the second concert of Sir Simon Rattle’s exploration of Schumann and Berlioz.

The performance of Les francs-juges featured a splendidly full-bodied brass section, including an ophicleide. The sound was wonderfully full, in an interpretation stylised a little by Rattle but always as the music permitted – we were therefore able to hear every part as the second theme skimmed lightly over the surface, and the uncomfortable central section bore a striking anticipation of a Mahler funeral march. Here the percussion added impressive weight, while the contrabassoon gave a throaty quality to the sound.

With textures noticeably lighter in the ‘Spring’ Symphony, Rattle conducted an endearingly fresh account of this most appealing work. Tempos were generally on the quick side, which was to the slight detriment of the ‘Larghetto’, which, while never over-hurried, looked to press on rather than breathe. When the cellos took the theme up a short while in, the phrases were slightly squashed as a result and the ensuing scherzo arrived a moment too soon. Once the vigour was underway, however, the vitality of the orchestral playing swept all before it.

With a steady accelerando Rattle brought the finale to a rousing conclusion, again tending to take the pulse on the fast side, but the players were hugely responsive throughout – especially the violins, whose antiphonal placement worked well for the dancing theme as it passed back and forth.

The ‘Rhenish’ was also quick, the phrasing of its opening theme a little too constricted, while the second movement Ländler, though also on the fast side, was notable for beautiful textures and a lovely rocking motion. The use of ‘period’ instruments greatly reduces the relevance of criticism often levelled (lazily) at Schumann’s orchestration, which once again was revealed as relatively lucid. In the ‘Rhenish’ these advantages really came into play in the celebrated fourth movement, here evoking the plainsong of Cologne Cathedral, the brass extremely well drilled. This cast an appropriate solemnity over proceedings, particularly in the cold final chords, their fp dynamic scrupulously observed, and made the finale’s declarations of joy all the more pronounced.

The enjoyment Sir Simon took from these performances was clear to see, as was the unanimity of the musicians of the OAE.

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