By now, Sir Roger has dusted down so many 19th-century romantic masters that last weekend it came as a surprise to find in his sights the most famous one of all, Tchaikovsky. Perhaps it was thought there was still too much lingering controversy about the manner of the composer's final departure. Or perhaps he just seemed an untouchable popular icon. Either way, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, themselves appearing in their first South Bank Norrington "experience", and the conductor himself, made handsome amends, and in the process were not frightened to take some old war horses out for a canter.
Norrington kept no secret about the clue to the size and placing he'd chosen for his OAE forces: this was a photograph of the Russian orchestra that had given the second performance of the Pathetic Symphony in 1893. Elementary, of course, once you knew the secret. Furthermore, the arrangement of first violins and brass to the left, basses centred and second violins and brass to the right has long been a familiar one for authentic music ensembles. Yet what a difference it made to the famous "concealed" theme that opened the Sixth Symphony's Finale on Sunday night. And in the scurrying fugue of the Serenade for Strings, heard the previous evening, it was an added factor in the music's vitality.
In an earlier recital, Joan Rodgers and Roger Vignoles had performed Tchaikovsky lieder, a reminder that his powers as a vocal composer were no less fluent than those for instrumental music. But the crown of the day was the First Piano Concerto, which Nikolai Demidenko, a brooding presence on the platform, played on Erard grand piano No 12233, built here in London in 1870. Anything but servile to the pianist's wishes, this keyboard needed coaxing to yield its dangerous timbre that carried well yet sustained with less conviction than does a modern grand. The most interesting sound, as it happened, came from the orchestra, working hard to play softly so as not to swamp the Erard's tone in the sensitive QEH acoustic. In return for rapturous applause, Demidenko gave Rachmaninov's G sharp minor Prelude Op 32 No 12 as an encore, a perfect foil both in style and mood to the concerto's heroic bombast.
Lacking time to play all three orchestral suites, which are themselves of symphonic length, Norrington hit on the happy idea of starting Sunday evening's concert with a movement from each of them. A March, a Reves d'enfant and a Scherzo were happy, entertaining pieces, clearly of the ballet and clearly worlds away from the passionate intensity that was to erupt in the Sixth Symphony. The Act 2 conclusion of The Sleeping Beauty, heard on Saturday evening, was matched by Tatanya's letter scene from Eugene Onegin, Joan Rodgers again, with some notable accompanying from Anthony Robson on feisty oboe and Roger Montgomery, horn. But the most notable impression was the last: Chi-chi Nwanoku's pulsing double bass notes that closed the Pathetic, and with it the experience. In this movement more than ever, it seemed, the lack of vibrato made a difference. It was the sound of misery and despair, noble grief yet terrifying, relapsing into silence.
Nicholas WilliamsReuse content