The sign of a good concert from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is when you as a listener reappraise the very fabric of the music you have just heard. As the orchestra becomes ever more adventurous in their choice of repertoire, there was a chance to hear them venture as far afield as Wagner, Liszt and Mahler.
The connections between the three composers Wagner and Liszt were friends, and both had a telling influence on Mahler were explored under the banner of Symphonic Enlightenment, giving the orchestra and principal conductor Vladimir Jurowski a chance to mix the familiar and the seldom heard.
Into the former camp fell the Prelude to Parsifal, Wagner’s beautifully consonant overture receiving an unusually luxurious performance from the period instruments. From the outset it was clear Jurowski was not going to be rushed, and he allowed the music to unfold in the course of a single paragraph with tender lucidity. Attention to detail was the key, the standard of playing from horns and brass in particular exemplary.
Mahler’s Totenfeier, the symphonic poem doubling as a blueprint for the first movement of his Resurrection symphony, received a similarly colourful performance, though here the tempo was extremely fast brilliantly played, but cutting off some of its essential expression, the funeral march more a quickstep than a dread-laden march. Sharply defined winds and crawling double bass lines set the tone, though, concealing the menace just around the edges. Only in the full tutti passages did the orchestral sound feel noticeably quieter than a latter day symphony orchestra, the volume appreciably lower even with 80 plus players on the platform.
We enjoyed rather brighter Mahler after the interval, thanks to the contribution of mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly. Her interpretation of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen conveyed the morning outdoor freshness experienced by Mahler’s wayfarer in second song Ging heut Morgen bers Feld, but the following Ich hab’ein glhend Messer was cold in the extreme, with added frostbite from sharply focused lower strings at the end. Connolly was a captivating presence, strongly communicative but also restless, the wayfarer’s sleep fitful at the end.
After this a celebration was needed, and ultimately found, in Liszt’s ceremonial but now under performed symphonic poem Les Preludes. It is to be hoped that Liszt the innovator is fully recognised in his bicentenary year, since he wrote much music of originality and genuine power. Originally planned as an overture, Les Preludes proved ideal for bringing down the curtain, and was appropriately paced and structured. The theme in the faster music was roughly hewn, accompanied as it was by dashing string figures, the horns again spot on with their intonation. This was a thoroughly convincing performance, Liszt’s own questioning of life and death bringing give and take to the music, until the final blazing burst of C major left us in no doubt that he had chosen life.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk