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Berlioz & Schumann

Berlioz Overture: Les francs-juges, Op.3
Schumann Symphony No.1 in B flat, Op.38 (Spring) Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.97 (Rhenish)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Rattle

Royal Festival Hall 9 December 2008

Schumann symphonies appear infrequently in concerts and two of them in the same programme is a rarity. Nos 1 & 3 made a perfect pairing and these were totally riveting accounts, with all the ardour and commitment for which Simon Rattle is famous, and a sound picture from near-back stalls that was ideal, with many a magical moment from one or other instrumental group.

Rattle and the OAE certainbly put out of mind conventional criticism of Schumann's orchestration as "thick and muddy", which has perhaps tended to relegate his symphonies to the second rank.

This was very much a concert to see, as well as to hear. The Les francs-juges overture gave us an opportunity to relish the young Berlioz's extravagant brass family, with eye catching natural instruments, trumpets, trombones and ophicleide. This well attended concert will have been a big step for those present in validating the extension of authentic period instruments for 19th century symphony concerts (an earlier landmark in that development was Roger Norrington's Berlioz Experience weekend in 1988 - q.v. John Rockwell March 1988 New York Times - Mr. Norrington's Berlioz - - almost more revelatory than his Beethoven). May the conventional modern orchestra soon have to secede 19th C repertoire as has happened with music of the baroque - I remember vividly Sir Henry Wood at the Albert Hall giving Bach Brandenburg 3 with the full strings of the BBC Symphony Orchestra !

One small thought about watching symphony concerts from the audience's point of view.

The OAE's five horns were magnificent, but I was not able to confirm that they were indeed valve-less natural horns until I noticed a spare crook hanging on one of the music stands and the other players were emptying out the water which accumulates; whilst playing, they were hidden behinf their music stands. The musicians appeared by no means glued to their scores as if sight-reading bar by bar. Might not most of them be able to cope with their stands adjusted to improve audience sight lines, either by lowering their stands, or by adopting the King's Singers clever strategy at the Proms?

This concert (and presumably that the day before, with Schumann 2 & 4) was not being broadcast or televised. The OAE are marvellous to watch, with plenty of close-up opportunities. And Rattle in action is far more photogenic than, say, Gergiev, whose Mahler cycle has been televised by the BBC, to no great visual joy - sometimes the wandering camera seems not to know where to look...

OAE is enjoying tremendous well-earned success that goes far beyond early music afficionados. With our programmes, we were given copies of their lavish celebratory book Spirit of the Orchestra (2006) edited by Helen Wallace; an interesting read, well worth acquiring.

Presumably, if schedules allow, Rattle & the OAE will follow up this Schumann/Berlioz mini-festival with CDs?* Better though to go for a DVD.

Peter Grahame Woolf

* See Fiona Maddox in The Guardian