<preform>A Midsummer Night's Dream/OAE/Fischer, Royal Festival Hall, London</br>Tippett Weekend/Hall&eacute; Orchestra/Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester</preform>

Listen closely - that's the sound of the cart leaving the horse behind
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The Independent Culture

While much of musical Britain has been consumed by the Tippett centenary, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has been concentrating on the Victorian wunderkind who made a storm in the Hebrides as cosy as tea and toast. From his killing-by-kindness re-orchestration of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the reconstruction of a Leipzig Gewandhaus soirée, no effort has been spared in contextualising the music of Felix Mendelssohn. But the OAE's most ambitious project - a semi-staged performance of the Overture and Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream with Tim Carroll of the Globe Theatre - may have taken contextualisation too far.

While much of musical Britain has been consumed by the Tippett centenary, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has been concentrating on the Victorian wunderkind who made a storm in the Hebrides as cosy as tea and toast. From his killing-by-kindness re-orchestration of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the reconstruction of a Leipzig Gewandhaus soirée, no effort has been spared in contextualising the music of Felix Mendelssohn. But the OAE's most ambitious project - a semi-staged performance of the Overture and Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream with Tim Carroll of the Globe Theatre - may have taken contextualisation too far.

The Royal Festival Hall is an auditorium in which, for good or ill, you can hear almost everything: finely detailed playing, poorly executed playing, perfectly balanced chording, badly balanced chording, intricate polyphony, polyphonic ring-tones, and the kind of bronchitic eruptions (mostly mine) of which Steptoe père et fils would be proud. Sadly, it is not very good at translating the spoken word. The best I can say of Carroll's abridged Dream is that it was resourceful (ie cheap). With the exception of John Paul Connelly's characterful Bottom, the Estuarian yowling, lubricious sibilance and feline purring of the cast was indistinct. Some cute musical references poked through the cut-price fairydust and garbled verse - Bottom's donkey ears were horn bells, Titania's bower a double-bass case, the forest the orchestra - but by the interval there had been more Tunes in my mouth than had been heard from the OAE, and approximately 15 minutes of music to 50 of speech.

Never has Mendelssohn's Incidental Music sounded quite so incidental. Which is a pity as few conductor-orchestra partnerships are as tempting as Ivan Fischer and the OAE. Excepting Philippe Herreweghe's 1994 recording, this spun-sugar juvenilia has scarcely been heard on the instruments for which it was written. But from the fire-fly upper-strings pianissimo of the Overture to the chuckling woodwind of the Scherzo and the melting curves of the Act II Song - beautifully sung by Carys Lane and Helen Groves - the possibility of being interrupted by shouty fairies or rude mechanicals hung over every movement, including, bizarrely, the Overture. Fischer's shapes and colours were beguiling but could not develop as they might have had this performance been given in concert or by candlelight instead of bike-lights. It's possible - though unlikely, given the length of the remaining movements - that the balance of speech to music was better in Acts IV and V and the atmosphere more faithful to Mendelssohn's era, but cheated of magic and thick with cold I was disinclined to stay.

Thus far, the Tippett centenary has focused on his chamber music, which is excellent, and vocal music, which, whether set to his own lyrics or someone else's, is as much a vehicle for its composer's Weltanschauung as Hans Sachs's monologue in Die Meistersinger is for Wagner's. A sense of overkill is perhaps endemic to all anniversaries but those of the very best composers. But few would argue that Tippett was one of the these, and the question now seems to be whether he scrapes into the second division. That the most powerful moments in A Child of Our Time and The Knot Garden are artfully framed musical quotations does not augur well, and any clear assessment of Tippett the composer is muddied by the enormous affection in which Tippett the man is still held.

With signal lack of sentiment, Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra made a persuasive argument for the quality of the best of his orchestral writing in two concerts at the Bridgewater Hall's Tippett Weekend. Box office notwithstanding, pairing Tippett with Beethoven and Janacek is risky, and negative comparisons were unavoidable on hearing Janacek's visceral Sinfonietta so soon after the pseudo-visceral "five gestures of farewell" of Tippett's Second Symphony. But so vividly articulated and radiantly coloured were Elder's readings of this, the Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, and the Triple Concerto, that vexation was replaced by fascination.

Having admitted that he did not admire all of Tippett's music, Elder announced that these four works were ones he loved. His conducting reflected this. Even in the most abstruse repertoire, the Hallé has the advantage of impressing both as a unit and in individual sections. By the time I'd finished noting moments of brilliance in the Ritual Dances, for instance, I'd listed each section of the orchestra and each instrument of the woodwind. Elder's ability to create translucence then contrast it with a dense, chewy tutti is remarkable, and with Lyn Fletcher's spell-binding violin, Timothy Pooley's meaty viola, and Rebecca Gilliver's athletic, intense cello, the oriental loops of the Triple Concerto had clarity and sensuality. The Concerto for Double String Orchestra was dynamic, the Janacek arresting, and though the Leonora Overtures numbers 1 and 3 had an air of improvisation, both concerts were riveting.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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