BBC Proms reviews

Prom 72: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Mackerras @ Royal Albert Hall, London

8 September 2006

Barring the Last Night, Prom 72 is the culmination of this year’s season. There is hardly a more appropriate way to end than with Mozart, who also started the Proms back in July.

The choice of Mozart’s awesome, God-fearing C Minor Mass was inspired, and the piece thrilled with the wealth of experience that Sir Charles Mackerras brought to his reading.

This was lucky, because Mozart’s Haffner Symphony (No. 35) previously had not come alive. Mackerras’s approach with refinement and restraint taking precedence would have worked in a smaller hall, but here the acoustic swallowed the performance, and what it spat back out was tepid and quiet.

The reading was excellent, however, with glee and wistfulness balanced in near perfect proportions, but always contained within the bounds of Classical elegance. The first movement was delicate, and Mackerras found lyricism in the normally grand opening. The use of dissonance throughout the symphony was downplayed, though never ignored, while the scurrying strings of the Presto managed to find maniacal excitement even though they were never allowed to scurry out of control. The problem, then, was the venue rather than the music.

The Mass luckily did not find the same problems with acoustic difficulties, and the sound produced from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was substantial. The brass trombones, trumpets, horns coped remarkably well given the difficulties of playing period instruments, while the purity of the violins was unsurpassed. Perhaps most impressive was the woodwind, and the flute, oboe and bassoon solo writing in the Et Incarnatus Est was divinely moulded. The orchestra could not have played better.

With Mackerras at the helm, this turned out to be something very special. Sir Charles may not have relished the shuddering final cadence of the Quoniam at the speed with which he took it, but elsewhere his conducting was flexible, alert and energetic. Whether in the violence of the Qui Tollis or the furious triplet rhythms of the Credo, Mackerras drove the orchestra to dizzying heights.

They were matched in quality by the Choir of the Enlightenment, who have been drilled by Chorus Master Terry Edwards into a breathtaking unit. The sopranos perhaps suffer from too noticeable a mix of timbres, while the altos took too long to warm up. Once they had, however, the sound was vast and the tone clear. The tenors impressively soared upwards while the heavy basses resonated excellently.

The four soloists were fine but not spectacular. Rosemary Joshuas soprano occasionally needed to tighten vibrato, but intonation was very good. Sarah Fox, replacing an unwell Lisa Milne, quavered a lot, but her tone was pure. Tenor Eric Cutler was secure but overpowered by the orchestra for too much of the time, especially in his aria Et In Spiritum Sanctum. Bass Nathan Berg had a criminally small amount to do, and who could blame him for sounding lightweight in the Benedictus given that he had not opened his mouth for the previous hour?

If the concert felt disproportionate, with a 20 minute first half and an 80 minute second, the fault lies with Robert Levin, whose completed version of the Mass was that performed on Friday. Levin’s composition may be commendable and probably very near what Mozart wrote, but it says nothing not already made clear through the music and, above all, it is not Mozart. The completion adds on twenty or so minutes of superfluous music to what is already perfection, and the audience’s increasing restlessness on Friday echoed this.

Nevertheless, Mackerras made a convincing enough case for the additions, and the chorus and orchestra could not be faulted. The Last Night may be the actual climax to the Proms, but as the last serious concert, this made a great impression and a fitting conclusion to a good season.

buy Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment MP3s or CDs
Spotify Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on Spotify

More on Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant review – a fresh take on Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic opera
Just pure Haydn: John Butt and OAE at Kings Place
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Paterson @ Henry Wood Hall, London
Prom 40: Queen Victoria’s 200th Anniversary @ Royal Albert Hall, London
OAE/Elder @ Royal Festival Hall, London