OAE/Elder, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

We all take Mendelssohn for granted - that's the message from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's survey of a familiar yet still surprising composer.

We all take Mendelssohn for granted - that's the message from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's survey of a familiar yet still surprising composer. They ended this season with the most famous works, hoping for us to hear them with fresh ears. With the Hebrides Overture, Mark Elder's way was to treat it not as a series of pictures from the boat trip to Iona that inspired the work, but as a highly organised workout of some powerful musical ideas.

Early on, sustained wind notes emerging from the bustling strings were being picked out as a binding force. Soon after, it became clear that the moderate pace would work for the whole span of the overture, without any need for the traditional speed-ups and slowings. Often, this sort of effort deprives a piece of natural fluency, but the choice of pace was crucial and cleverly judged, allowing spacious phrasing, tenderness and energy all to flourish.

Which symphony begins with a major chord and ends in the minor? The OAE offered the standard quiz answer, Mendelssohn's Italian, with surging vitality from start to finish, and more fresh thoughts. Many listeners won't have realised before that making the initial repeat, with its long leadback introducing a new theme, places the end of the movement in a completely different light.

The concert also featured a rarity by Mendelssohn's Danish protégé, Niels Gade. But his Symphony No 8 is no clone, with an element of the master's voice bound up in a more personal, plain-spoken musical language. Garrulous and busy, the opening movement whizzed along with élan and a woeful lack of incident. It could have done with the loving care lavished on the overture: orchestral ensemble wasn't all it could have been.

The Cello Concerto by Robert Schumann, Mendelssohn's friend, was the evening's highlight, a fabulous collaboration with the soloist Steven Isserlis. Many cellists have found this concerto a puzzle, a showpiece that doesn't quite come off. Isserlis responded rather to its half-lights and mysterious ellipses, echoed in the orchestra with the same subtlety as in the Hebrides, coupled with a symphonic drive and animation of the inner detail.

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