MUSIC / No business like showbiz: Robert Maycock listens to the OAE conducted by Simon Rattle

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has been spreading its wings of late. This week it will tour period-style performances of classical symphonies around the Continent; when it gets back it joins up with the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company to perform Purcell; and later this year you will find the OAE at the Proms, the Edinburgh Festival and in Manchester for the Messiah. That is a fair pace for what, a few years ago, would have struck most musicians as a fringe way of carrying on.

Simon Rattle, as principal guest conductor, helped the OAE haul in large audiences for the first outing of the tour programmes, two nights running at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. But it was the music- making that kept them riveted. Careful preparation was part of the secret. However, as the performances moved on, it seemed that the essential quality was an ability to find an inner pulse for the music. Rattle's actual pace can fluctuate quite widely, but it does so from the security of a basic speed that is always felt in the background. Schubert's Ninth makes its transitions from beginning to Allegro to quick end in ways that perplex conductors, and often sound jerky or ponderous. Here, the opening quarter- hour was very much of one tempo, without being pedantically in it.

The Schubert seemed to exist on a rare level of alertness. The Scherzo was a sharply characterised series of vignettes, while the finale achieved immense calm at a frantic pace. The climax of the slow movement just let go, rushing headlong into a huge silence, then recovering phrase by phrase. Rattle held on to the pause; if he had waited forever, the whole hall would have been with him.

As with Schubert's finale, the opening of the Mozart G Minor Symphony found breadth by going fast. The minuet was less lucky, so busily accented that it came out like Saint-Saens trying to be angry, but the finale stepped up a notch in its intensity by holding back the rush, so that the disruptive outburst at the centre was given full weight.

Beethoven's Pastoral had the sound of a performance in the making. This was a townsman's countryside. Much of the playing had the sense of rediscovery a period-style approach can bring, but in places the stretching-out of favourite moments crossed the line between relish and self-absorption. Beethoven sometimes has to sound solemn; but not sententious.

The Haydn symphony that opened the first concert, No 90, was sometimes breathless, but always alert. Rattle's gestures here seemed oddly florid, out of scale for both the music and the hall, and he didn't need to overplay the joke at the end quite so drastically. But then, what's the point in being a star if you can't indulge in a little showbiz?