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Wagner, Mahler and Liszt: Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Vladimir Jurowski (Conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London. 21.1.2011 (JPr)

Wagner Prelude to Parsifal

Mahler Totenfeier

Mahler Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

Liszt Les Préludes

The debate about ‘period instrument orchestras’ is one for another place and time but even for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment this was an ambitious musical programme for original, old, instruments. The OAE’s catchphrase is ‘not all orchestras are the same’ and is a neat way of preparing their audience that what they are hearing is a different slant on - often familiar - music. They promise revelations in clarity, detail, colours and sounds that are often hidden by the power of the modern instruments, as well as a recreation of the vitality of the original performances.

Under the title ‘Symphonic Enlightenment’ the OAE brought together music by Liszt, Wagner and Mahler. Liszt’s highly romantic music and harmonic innovations influenced Wagner whose revolutionary use of the orchestra significantly effected Mahler’s compositions. However in Wagner and Mahler – and to a lesser extent Liszt – the audience is used to a big, overwhelming sound unlike that expected from the OAE’s usual eighteenth-century and early romantic music repertoire. It was interesting to hear these composers performed with more-or-less vibrato-free strings, natural horns and astringent woodwinds but it was an experiment they should not repeat, at least for Wagner and Mahler.

Wagner’s poignant Prelude to
Parsifal was composed for the surround-sound aural experience of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and draws together most of the major themes of the opera. It is luxuriant music that must be allowed to breathe and indeed Jurowski’s account made quite stately progress. However where the music should just hang in the air whilst retaining an inner pulse and forward momentum - without much use of vibrato from the strings – in the cavernous Royal Festival Hall it just stopped and then started again. This was much the same in Mahler's Totenfeier that was the composer’s first foray into orchestral music. He later reworked it as the first movement of the Second Symphony and it is almost instantly recognisable by Mahlerians as that, only with subtly different orchestration in parts. Perhaps with the textures so stripped down, as heard here, it would have deserved Hans von Bülow’s famous criticism, when Mahler played it for him on the piano, that Totenfeier made Tristan und Isolde sound to him like a Haydn symphony!

However the OAE gave a sort of refined elegance to the
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen: these ‘Songs of a wayfaring lad’ are a ‘last hurrah’ for the Romantic song tradition, perfected by Schubert and Schumann, and the late spring seems to mock Mahler’s lovelorn ‘wayfaring lad’ and all his gloomy thoughts. Sarah Connolly is a singer of great musical intelligence and sang with eloquence and grace. However in my opinion the singer should create a different atmosphere for these songs than, for instance, the Kindertotenlieder, and I was reminded too much of those songs in Ms Connolly’s rather downbeat performance.

Les Préludes rounded off the rather short concert in grand symphonic style as if Jurowski had released the virtuosic OAE from the shackles he had applied for Wagner and Mahler. Originally conceived as an ‘overture’ it ended as a ‘symphonic poem’. Liszt might have us believe the music questions ‘What is life? What is death?’ but if it is depicting a ‘prelude’ to anything it probably would be to writing new music and something that would go on to inspire Wagner and, by association, Mahler. It is expressive, full of thematic transformations and leads to a timpani-driven final peroration that was stirringly performed despite the OAE’s restricted orchestral palette and the too-obvious mechanics of playing their ‘authentic’ woodwinds and brass.

Jim Pritchard


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