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Mendelssohn, Weber, Beethoven:
Anthony Pay (clarinet), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, David Zinman (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 8. 2.2011 (GDn)

: Overture, Intermezzo and the Scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream

Weber: Clarinet Concerto No.1 in F minor

Beethoven: Symphony no.7

Not all orchestras are the same. That's the current motto of the OAE, but nobody has mentioned it to David Zinman, who spent most of this evening trying to get them to sound like his Tonhalle Orchestra. Fortunately, the tension produced was musically productive, there were no compromises here, and every reconciliation between ancient and modern was provisional. There were difficult negotiations, no doubt, but on balance everyone came out a winner.

Zinman seemed surprised by the level of the woodwinds in the mix. He put a great deal of effort into bringing up the sting section to a more predominant position, although his failures in that respect were as interesting as his successes. The Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream set the tone. It is rare to hear such an opulent, Romantic sound from this or any period instrument orchestra. On the whole, it worked very well: the basses were slightly elevated on the platform and underpinned the sound with a real strength, while the other string sections gave Zinman the power he was looking for, while retaining that distinctive gut string sound.

It took the orchestra a few minutes to warm to this approach, and the ensemble in the strings was shaky for the first few minutes. Zinman also had trouble conjuring the necessary magic from this music. The woodwind entries at the start were four-square and matter of fact, and the later pianissimo passages were not nearly as convincing as the tuttis. It was great to hear the ophicleide in those louder passages, one of the few brass instruments that is more often seen than heard, so to have it pumping out those bass lines was a real treat.

The Mendelssohn improved as it went on. The Intermezzo, Nocturne and Scherzo were inspired choices, simply for their showcasing of the woodwind and brass soloists, and if Zinman was responsible for this programming choice, then perhaps he understands this orchestra better than I was previously giving his credit for.

Anthony Pay is a fine clarinet soloist, but he doesn't look comfortable standing in front of an orchestra. He squints inquisitively at the audience, then begins shuffling the pages of his music – its not the sort of behaviour you'd expect from Lang Lang. He gave a fabulous performance though, of the Weber First Concerto. Listening to this work on a period instrument, you realise just what the challenges are that the composer sets. It isn't hard to make a pianissimo, round sound on a modern instrument, but here you really have to work at it. The louder notes are more secure on a modern instrument too, and that's a real shame, because Weber goes to great lengths to set up climaxes where the peak is a very loud, very high note (C?) on the clarinet, and the timbre this instrument produces up there is clearly very fragile. You feel fortunate to have heard it at all, and after it is over the look on Pay's face is one of relief. It makes for compelling listening. And what great orchestration there is in the Weber, at least as innovative as in the Mendelssohn. The second movement, for example, ends with the solo clarinet accompanied by just the horns, and the climaxes of the finale are garnished with trumpets. Fascinating stuff, and it provides plenty of scope for Zinman to put in an almost operatic reading of the orchestral accompaniment.

Given the obvious aesthetic tensions in the first half, it was almost inevitable that Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony would be a hit and miss affair. So what worked and what didn't? Well, the second movement misfired. Zinman started it immediately after the last chord of the opening movement, a smart move in theory for keeping the momentum. The trouble was there was too much momentum, it was too fast and too mechanical. He had trouble again with the subtlety of the quieter passages, and with the balance between the woodwind and the brass.

The other three movements worked much better. As with the Mendelssohn Overture, the first movement was carried by the sheer energy of the tuttis. The strings excelled in both the outer movements, giving Zinman the symphonic depth he was looking for, while always retaining that valuable period instrument detail of sound. The finale benefited most from this, it had all the energy of a full sized modern orchestra, but more detail in the string counterpoint than any modern instrument ensemble could ever hope for. Despite Zinman's efforts to suppress the woodwinds, he was surprisingly happy to give the trumpets and timpani their heads. Again, that didn't always help the balance, but in the finale of the Beethoven it was just what was needed – the icing on the cake.

A triumphal conclusion, then, to an otherwise mixed concert. The OAE's policy of hiring guest conductors with little experience of period instruments has come in for surprisingly little criticism. Of course, there is no reason why somebody like David Zinman should know anything less about the Romantic repertoire than the players of an orchestra founded on baroque and classical principles. And they are certainly broadening their horizons with guest conductors of this calibre. I wonder if the influence will work the other way? If the next time you hear a recording of the Tonhalle they are all using gut strings with no vibrato, you'll know who’s responsible.

Gavin Dixon

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