Opera + Classical Music Reviews

OAE/Rattle @ Royal Festival Hall, London

8 December 2008

Simon Rattle conducts vibrant performances of Schumann’s 2nd and 4th Symphonies.

Southbank Centre

Royal Festival Hall (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment responds with thrilling playing, belying critics and proving that these works are pillars of the symphonic repertoire.

The symphonies of Robert Schumann have a chequered reception history. In the past they were easy targets for critics, pilloried for their formal design and over-orchestration. Yet when presented in such vibrant performances like these, such doubts are blown out of the water, replaced by a renewed acknowledgement of the composer’s ever-growing legacy, not to mention his influence on contemporary composers such as Kurtg.

Hearing the OAE play Schumann’s symphonies as he would perhaps have heard them is a revelatory experience, the works shorn of the thickness they often acquire in modern performances. It helps to have a responsive Sir Simon Rattle at the helm, and here he secured a cogent Fourth Symphony full of tension and drama.

Opting for the original version, which tightens up the structure to present the work as more of a single movement in four sections, Rattle conducted a tense introduction with sparse textures, broadening only slightly for the ensuing allegro. The finale danced as it all too rarely does, the pizzicato pinpricks from lower strings providing a secure base over which the lilting themes unfolded, with the performance accelerating in thrilling fashion towards the end. The scherzo was lean and wiry, though didn’t quite project the dotted rhythms in the counterpoint with as much snap as some.

The Second Symphony is regarded as something of an enigma. Completed in dark times for the composer, it nonetheless contains music of defiant optimism, a triumph fully realised in the finale by Rattle and his charges. To achieve that they plumbed real emotional depths in the slow movement, its neo-Baroque opening leading to a central section that almost stopped, the strings barely nudging forward.

The flighty scherzo was superbly played, though the trios ensured the movement couldn’t shake off its devil-may-care pretence, while the slow introduction to the work was very pronounced, an approach that would have sounded ponderous under any other direction than Rattle’s. Here the expansive opening served as an ideal upbeat to the main theme, once it got going.

The concert opened, providing a vivid contrast in style, with the dramatic King Lear Overture by Berlioz. While necessarily pulling the tempo around a lot, Rattle delivered a strongly characterised performance of what is essentially an early symphonic poem, and he was particularly helped by Anthony Robsons wonderfully sweet oboe solo.

Contrasting the innovative orchestration of Berlioz with that of his contemporary proves an interesting exercise, yet performing King Lear in proximity also highlighted Schumann’s poetic approach to the symphony. It’s heartening to see how popular these works have deservedly become, and they have true champions in Rattle and this wonderful orchestra.

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