CLASSICAL MUSIC: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; QEH, London

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The Independent Culture
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, that echt-period band, were found straying wildly off their patch in Tuesday night's concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. A programme of French music, dating from the second half of the 19th century? That spells chutzpah. But how they appeared to enjoy it! Like naughty children caught out of school, they relished tackling repertoire far from their "normal" arena. Too bad that their intended conductor, Paavo Jarvi, was struck low because he, too, must have been expecting a romp in unfamiliar territory. As it was, a safe pair of hands, in the shape of John Lubbock, rescued the entire programme as announced.

In the London Symphony Orchestra's recent French mini-series of Debussy at the Barbican, a number of very unfamiliar works were given an airing, but at the QEH, the OAE stayed largely with pieces so familiar that the programme began to read like a rescue act on some of the most hackneyed works in the French repertoire - Faure's Elegie, Faure's Pavane, Bizet's Symphony in C - with a sprinkling of the very slightly less familiar - Faure's incidental music to Pelleas et Melisande, Bizet's Jeux d'enfants and Saint-Saens's Cello Concerto No 1 in A minor.

But then surely the programme was deliberately provocative in allowing the OAE to show off its style of playing, blowing away, in a thrice, 150 years of cobwebs. What worked so marvellously, time and time again, was the stripping-back in the strings of full-throated vibrato so that you could hear the steadiness of the melodic line ("big tunes", such as the Duo in Bizet's Jeux d'enfants or Faure's Pavane, could really breathe) and the delicious puffing of rosin on gut. As for fleetness of articulation, the last movement of Bizet's symphony can never have sounded so fresh. But what cheek to introduce such impeccable slides!

Beautiful playing was also to be heard from the wind - Neil McLaren using a wooden flute for the Pavane; Anthony Robson touchingly reedy in the oboe's "moment" in the slow movement of Bizet's Symphony; Antony Pay (clarinet) frequently giving an extra edge to the colour of the harmony and to such subtle effect.

Steven Isserlis, too, seemed to be revelling in the sound of a "new" cello. Isserlis, of course, has long insisted on the use of gut strings, but in the concert hall there have been frequent occasions when, frustratingly, the ear has strained for what the eye could see. Not so on Tuesday. My ears and eyes may have deceived me but I think a new instrument is being tried out. As soloist in the Saint-Saens Concerto, Isserlis had no trouble in projecting a warm, focused sound in the cello's lower register - particularly impressive high on the G string - while soaring over the top in the composer's arching melodies and wiggly triplets. The piece suits him well in its combination of poetry and passion. It's a work that can so easily move from the soulful to the sentimental. Not, however, in Isserlis's hands.

An unusually rewarding, Gallic evening.

Annette Morreau