Rattle and the OAE Present Romantic Repertoire in a More Mellow Light

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Rott and Bruckner: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 22.4.2016. (AS)

Brahms: Tragic Overture, Op. 81

Rott: Symphony in E – Scherzo

Bruckner: Symphony No. 6 in A

At recent Festival Hall concerts the OAE has ventured into more modern fare than the period repertoire in which it made its reputation and from which it takes its name. But the orchestra still keeps itself apart from conventional symphonic ensembles through the use of ‘authentic’ instruments from later times.

This concert featured works that were all written between 1878 and 1881, a time of high Romanticism. Given this fact, you might think that the accompanying programme would tell us something about the nature of orchestral instruments of that time as used in the concert. But there was nothing.

What did emerge during a finely paced and passionate performance of Brahms’s Tragic Overture was an interestingly mellow woodwind blend, softer and warmer than we would experience through the use of modern instruments, and a brass ensemble that in its tonal refinement cut less sharply through the other sections, particularly in the firmly stated chords near the end of the work. This was both interesting and rewarding to hear, for it must have been Brahms’s intention not to make the brass contribution so dominant as it usually is.

Hans Rott (1858–1884) had a short life that ended tragically. As a student at the Vienna Conservatory (where his contemporaries included Wolf and Mahler) he showed great promise and at the age of 22 he completed a symphony in which he set great store. Unfortunately, however, he showed the score to Brahms, who bluntly told him to give up composition. Rott must have had an innately unstable personality, for the shock of this verdict caused him to develop hallucinatory persecution mania, and after several attempts at suicide in an asylum his weakened body succumbed to tuberculosis when he was only 26 years old.

In a most interesting pre-concert talk Dr Ben Winters of the Open University demonstrated clearly enough how Mahler ‘borrowed’ passages from Rott’s Symphony as a basis for material in his own first and second symphonies, and it was fascinating if rather tantalising to hear just the Scherzo from this work, played with great gusto and apparent enjoyment by the OAE. At first hearing it seemed a slightly disorganised movement, but one that had good creative ideas.

Bruckner’s Sixth is the least often played of his later symphonies, and the chance of being able to hear it twice in London in two days is probably as rare as a total eclipse of the sun. Be that as it may, after a first airing in Cadogan Hall on Thursday evening here was a second.

At the beginning of the symphony Sir Simon, conducting without a score, set a slightly faster tempo than that suggested by the Maestoso marking, but then he introduced some intriguing and effective variations of pulse, and the movement as a whole had a fresh and urgent feeling to it. The Adagio was also astutely paced, with some dignified yet affectionate phrasing and a pleasing quality of sound from the ‘authentic’ woodwind section. In the Scherzo Rattle set a fairly conventional tempo, but the trio was propelled quickly at a rate that could never be described as Langsam. Only at this point in the performance did one seriously miss the dignity and spaciousness that inhabit more traditional, central European readings of the work.

Again, Rattle pressed forward in the finale: at times his drive seemed a little overdone, but once again there were well-judged tempo fluctuations and turns of phrase that provided expressive contrast and prevented an overall feeling of too much haste. It was interesting also to hear the brass interruptions emerge less blatantly and less rudely than usual in the hands of the OAE players: a gentler intervention was probably what Bruckner intended.

This was not an interpretation for every day, but it was effective in its own way, and the ‘period’ instrumental quality of sound softened what might have been a slightly too forceful a reading had it been played by a conventional symphony orchestra.

This was the first performance of a new edition of the symphony by Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs. This only involves some tidying up of inaccurate detail left in the well-regarded 1952 Nowak edition, so Bruckner’s admirers need not fear any fresh interference in his original intentions.

Alan Sanders


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