OAE / Mullova / Elder, Royal Festival Hall, London, ***

By Bayan Northcott
Wednesday 25 December 2013 04:17

Thanks to painstaking research, we now have a pretty good idea of how orchestral string sections expanded in the 19th century: when valve horns replaced natural horns; how rapidly violin chin-rests and Boehm-system flutes came in, and so on. But nobody today can possibly know exactly how a German orchestra balanced and phrased early performances of Schumann and Mendelssohn, perhaps less what a London orchestra premiering Dvorak in the 1880s sounded like, given the infamous 'deputy' system, whereby many players on the night would have been different to those at the rehearsals.

Moreover, in striving to bring their knowledge and intuition to bear upon their latest foray into 19th-century repertoire, the period players of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment had, on this occasion, the dry, shallow acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall to contend with. But they also had Mark Elder to pilot them with dynamic exactitude through Schumann's Overture, Scherzo and Finale, Op 52 (1841), that delectably vernal sequence he might have turned into another symphony had he added a slow movement.

Then the seriously intent Viktoria Mullova appeared to launch the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, Op 64 (1845). A recent convert to period playing, she cultivates a contained, silvery tone and gliding delivery in this score, with expressive vibrato reserved mainly for longer notes. Playing seemingly as much for herself and the players around her as to the audience, she made something special of the more rapt passages, such as that just before the first movement cadenza. But it was the forward-moving tempo of the slow movement she and Elder set that was the surprise: for once, a genuine, sauntering, two-in-the-bar Andante, which could have been what Mendelssohn expected.

Dvorak's Symphony No 7 in D minor, Op 70, was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society in 1885, and was his attempt to write a weighty symphony worthy of his mentor, Brahms. It is the most darkly concentrated of the nine, though some have found it self-conscious and stiff-jointed compared with the ineffable spontaneity of the wondrous Eighth. Elder's solution, while making the most of the lyrical second subjects and the song-like periods of the slow movement, was to go at the rest with fierce, unrefined purpose. Maybe the period clarinets glared out of the texture in this unhelpful hall, and the tone of the first oboe curdled; maybe a 60-strong OAE in full cry threatened to sear the ear, but this was utterly alive.

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