PROMS Orchestra and Choir of the Age of Enlightenment / Mark Elder Royal Albert Hall, London / Radio 3

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Tuesday's Prom by the Orchestra and Choir of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Mark Elder was a gripping affair that opened to the gruff tones of Beethoven's rarely played Namensfeier overture. It's the strangest of pieces, off-hand, harshly rhythmic, with abrasive harmonies (you can just imagine Beethoven revelling in those clashing dissonances) and with a cumulatively powerful ending - almost like the torso of a symphonic movement. Elder's performance was suitably brusque, although the hall's acoustic flirted more with the brass than with the strings, a bias that also visited Mendelssohn's rip-roaring cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht. This nine-part celebration of paganism triumphing over Christianity combines the magical properties of A Midsummer Night's Dream with the searing urgency of the late Op 80 String Quartet. After a heavily accented overture, tenor Paul Charles Clarke made winsome work of the druid's spring welcome and mezzo Patricia Bardon warned of potential Christian oppression with a positively Erda-like depth of tone. Thomas Hampson made for a charismatic Priest and proclaimed the freedom of the forest - his was the vocal tour de force of the evening - and when the Druid Watchmen and Pagans burst forth with "pitchforks" and "frenzied rattles", Mendelssohn scored their antics with maximum colour and dramatic resource. It was a cracking performance, though the manic chattering between woodwinds and brass was frequently swamped by the chorus and the tail- ends of string phrases tended to peter out - further symptoms of an unsympathetic acoustic. The performance itself, however, inspired enthusiastic volleys of applause and I rather fancy that a further Prom performance (this was its first) will be engineered "by demand".

Berlioz is said to have admired the "impeccable clarity" of Mendelssohn's score and, indeed, the devilish happenings in its central choruses run the Frenchman's more familiar "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath" a close contest - certainly in terms of visceral excitement. As it happened, the concert's second half was taken up with Berlioz's equally compelling "symphony in four parts with viola solo" after Byron, Harold in Italy. Elder and his orchestra were joined by Thomas Zehetmair, who stood nervously by while double-basses growled the opening "Scenes of Melancholy" and a baleful bassoon sung above them. The first movement was forceful, well drilled and fairly metrical in its phrasing (Elder played the repeat), with a freely expressive solo commentary from Zehetmair. Best, perhaps, was the haunting "Pilgrim's March", with its tolling horns and harp, delicately pointed by Elder and with Zehetmair bowing a chilled, sometimes barely audible sul ponticello (that is, edging the bow very near to the bridge).

The Abruzzi Highlander's Serenade was swift and lifting and the opening of the "Brigands' Orgy" snappy and well paced: like Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony, Berlioz summons key motives from earlier movements before setting out the main body of his musical argument. The Orgy itself struck me as rather too well policed - incisive, yes, and very competently played, but set at a lower voltage than the first movement. Still, period instruments generated their own manner of excitement, especially valveless horns in the coda. As to the rest of the movement, Zehetmair took a seat while Berlioz summoned vigorous arpeggios from the strings and the trombones played down to their boots.

Concert repeated Monday at 2pm on BBC Radio 3

Robert Cowan

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