Academy Of Ancient Music / Hogwood, St John's, Smith Square, London

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The Independent Culture

More or less our oldest period-instrument orchestra, the Academy of Ancient Music has just reached its 30th birthday. To mark the occasion, it has embarked on an ambitious season covering four centuries from the Baroque to the present. Two of its major events, however, are programmes of 19th-century repertoire by Mendelssohn and his circle - evidently the period that is currently most intriguing the Academy's founder and director, Christopher Hogwood.

He duly launched into the first of these - the Anniversary Concert in St John's, Smith Square - with a lusty account of his own new edition of Mendelssohn's rarely heard Trumpet Overture - a jubilant piece originally dating from the composer's 17th year, full of fanfares and show-off contrapuntal ingenuities, but with hints of the Hebrides overture in its quieter passages.

Not that they were very quiet on this occasion. The Academy may retain many distinguished individual players, but it has hardly kept pace over the years with the increasing refinement of some of our other period ensembles - cleaving, at least under this conductor, to plain, bluff, textures that too often lapse into mere roughness. Maybe this was not so critical in Mendelssohn's noisy baroque or the bouncy circus music in the outer movements of Weber's Clarinet Concerto No 2, delivered with woody-toned vivacity by Anthony Pay. But it mattered a lot more in the evening's two symphonies.

The Symphony No 4 in B flat major, Op 20, by Mendelssohn's Danish protégé Niels Wilhelm Gade (1817-90) instantly proclaims his master's voice in the suave way it glides into gear and its page after page of sweetly smiling thematic material and luminous scoring. But its lack of any very obvious symphonic tension leaves one wondering at the end what it was all about. Hogwood nicely brought off the lightness and wit of the scherzo, but to charm it needed more careful balancing, more poised and long-breathed phrasing, than his incessantly downright beat allows.

Or does Hogwood still hold that long-breathed phrasing is somehow anachronistic in this music, and is to be kept to a minimum? The concluding performance of Schumann's Symphony No 4 in D minor (actually his second in order of composition) was particularly hectic. And this was a pity, since this was the not-so-often-heard original version of the score, before Schumann thickened the scoring and over-inflated the transition to the finale - which, in the revised version, so often sounds anticlimactic.

After this thumping reading, it took a nicely played rendering of the wistful Andantino from Schubert's incidental music for Rosamunde, by way of an encore, to restore equanimity to the evening.