MUSIC / New out of old: Tess Knighton on Schumann premieres revisited

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The Independent Culture
Historically aware performances of Schumann and Mendelssohn are still comparatively rare, and the Hanover Band's Queen Elizabeth Hall programme offered an intriguing prospect - a reconstruction of the Leipzig Gewandhaus concert which took place under Mendelssohn's direction on 6 December 1841. It included new works by himself, Schumann - the Overture, Scherzo and Finale and the first version of the Fourth Symphony - and Liszt, as well as an aria from Mozart's Don Giovanni. The juxtaposition of new and old was a distinguishing feature of Mendelssohn's series at the Gewandhaus. That same year he gave a performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion there - making him the earliest early music revivalist.

One of the main attractions of today's 'early music' revival has become the 'newness' that historically aware performance lends old music. Many of the long-standing criticisms of Schumann's orchestration simply dissolve into thin air when the 'right' instrumentation is used. There are plenty of readily available facts about performance practice at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in the 1840s; so the picture is comparatively complete. Or is it? What do we really know about how that orchestra played? One of the dangers of recent excursions by period instrument orchestras into the mid-19th century is that research into playing styles and techniques is lagging far behind.

Questions of phrasing and the use of vibrato, for example, remain largely unstudied, and both seemed to me to have been left hanging by the Hanover Band's performances. The principal conductor Roy Goodman's approach is shaped by the generation of raw excitement (something he achieved very well at certain moments in the symphony), rather than a more refined sense of shaping. Delicacy, for all the added clarity of texture of period instruments, is not the Band's best suit, and they failed to match this quality in Leslie Howard's inspired account of Mendelssohn's Capriccio Brillant for piano and orchestra.

Here, as in Liszt's Reminiscences de Lucia di Lammermoor, the light, silvery tone of the upper register of the 1858 Broadwood grand made perfect sense of all those arpeggiated flourishes characteristic of the style: they were clearly intended to be feathery, not fleshed out into a full-blown onslaught on the ear. Howard seemed entirely at home with instrument and idiom - his were memorable performances.