In their latest series of concerts at the South Bank the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment have explored works well beyond their usual period, and Friday evening marked their widest stretch yet in a concert of late 19th-century works that included Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, Richard Strauss’s Violin Concerto and Sibelius’ 2nd Symphony. The orchestra obviously enjoyed the chance to wallow in the Romantic tropes that the music demands, as these were all there in their full rubato glory. It was fascinating, though, to hear these features played on 19th-century period instruments. This wasn’t the fused sound of a modern orchestra – the timbral quality of each instrument was somehow augmented, creating, overall, a more multi-textured acoustic: the gut strings furnished their instruments with more complex harmonics than their metal equivalents, the oboes were more poignant – on occasion like the cries of a wounded animal – the bassoons creakier, the horns brassier, and the trombones more solid.
The warm soup of Elgar’s Serenade was much grainier than usual, the buzzy quality of the gut strings adding more solidity and precision to the work. 19th-century Romanticism is Thierry Fischer’s heartland, and, directing with fluid-yet-precise gestures, he coaxed a perfect Elgar sound out of OAE, changing tempo and dynamic to achieve maximum effect. The slow build-up of the second movement was carefully controlled, and the varying timbres of each section allowed all the knitted underlay of the final movement to be clearly heard.
Richard Strauss’s violin concerto is a bit of a rarity. He wrote it when he was 18, and it’s a perfect model of a 19th-century concerto rivalling that of Bruch; indeed, it might have achieved higher profile had Strauss’s later more harmonically adventurous works not eclipsed it. Alina Ibragimova took the solo, using a gut-stringed instrument, and proved once again why she is in the handful of the world’s top violinists. Her bravura opening statement instantly caught the attention, and its echo in a quiet woodwind passage, full of many-faceted harmonics, was magical. The musical journey that followed prolonged the delight, whether it came from the furiously pyrotechnic double-stopping and martellato attacks in the opening movements, the sweet, quiet-as-you-like lyricism of the central movement or the rapid ‘fairy footsteps’ at the opening of the last movement. Fischer and the OAE crafted the orchestral pace and dynamic into a perfect foil that included some tightly controlled horn doubling of the soloist in the Lento section and instinctively rapid responses to volume shift in the Allegretto.
Fischer’s watchword for his approach to Sibelius’ mercurial second symphony was clearly ‘contrast’. He allowed the quirky timbres of the period instruments to shine (the fuzzy warmth of the strings at the opening of the second movement, for example, was set against the perky bubbling of the woodwind, dominated by the harsh night-bird-cry of the oboe), and made liberal use of change of tempo and dynamic, bringing the orchestra from a summery forte to a thin, chilly pianissimo in a heartbeat. The throaty horns were let off their leashes enough for excitement to bloom, but were never intrusive (their ostinato notes in the final movement were just loud enough to make you notice them), and the brass, throughout, provided gloriously warm support (but were allowed their head in the final ‘big tune’ section). There were occasional moments (particularly in the busier sections of the third movement) when the orchestra seemed not quite together, but this was more than made up for by the overall effect of the symphony, which succeeded magnificently in conjuring shifting disquiet and hope until its radiantly optimistic resolution.