CLASSICAL Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (QEH, London) Adrian Jack listens with fresh ears to a trio of 150-year-old scores brought back to new life by the sound of period instruments
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The Independent Culture
Franz Berwald's Sinfonie singuliere used to be heard quite often on the radio, but Wednesday night offered a rare concert performance, in which Paavo Jarvi, son of Neeme, conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. All the music in the programme belonged to the 1840s. Berwald was born, in Stockholm, the year before Schubert, though he outlived him by 40 years. His Sinfonie singuliere has a lot of the breezy classical radiance of Schubert's earlier symphonies without their tunefulness. In the first movement, there's also a brief blaze of woodwind and brass that hints at a less extravagant Berlioz; more fancifully speaking, it has an open-air quality that pre-echoes Carl Nielsen.

Berwald's orchestration is very clear, and though there's an elusive, understated quality about his actual invention, his musical argument is lucid, sometimes highlighted by abrupt little motifs like punctuation marks. The symphony's middle movement is a Scherzo with an extended slow introduction and epilogue, deftly devised. Singular it certainly is - Berwald seems to have been happily free of the post-Beethoven inferiority complex - and the music sounded marvellously fresh on period instruments.

It wasn't so easy to create the same sense of newness in Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. The soloist, Thomas Zehetmair, evidently wanted a more rugged approach than usual and tugged at phrases rather wilfully - Mendelssohn's fully composed cadenza in the first movement became almost unrecognisable. Both soloist and conductor pushed the central Andante rather ungracefully along, while the normally skittering finale was a bit on the slow side and trotted rather tamely. Not a complete success, but at least this unsuave performance made you listen.

But with Schumann's Second Symphony, after the interval, Jarvi levelled up the score. All Schumann's symphonies have been greatly underrated by critical convention, and the Second particularly so. Wednesday's lucid performance, with straight, valveless trumpets that looked a bit like giant safety-pins, and really woody-sounding woodwind, as well as light kettledrums played with hard sticks, proved that there is nothing wrong with Schumann's much-maligned orchestration.

My only misgiving concerned a lack of definition in some important cellos lines in the first movement, at least as played here. And really, the orchestra did not need to shatter the atmosphere with a burst of noisy tuning before the Scherzo second movement. In the first of its two trio sections, Jarvi controlled the fluctuating speeds with particular aplomb, and far more decisively than usual. The woodwind came into their own in the relay of little solos Schumann gives them in the glorious slow movement - rather analytical-sounding in this performance. Oddly enough in the finale, the first clarinet, sailing in with his inspirational new phrase, was a bit too quiet; but otherwise, there was nothing wanting in the sense of Schumann's hard-won triumph.