Saturday 1 June 2019

Texture, bite and tang: Thierry Fischer and the OAE in Sibelius

Elgar, Richard Strauss, Sibelius; Alina Ibragimova, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Thierry Fischer; Southbank Centre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 31 May 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Sibelius revealed, in a performance which explored the sounds and textures of the orchestra of the composer's day, alongside Richard Strauss' youthful violin concerto

Having explored the music of Liszt and Mahler, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) continued its explorations with a concert of music by Elgar, Richard Strauss and Sibelius at the Royal Festival Hall on 31 May 2019. The concert was intended to be conducted by Vladimir Jurowski but his illness meant that he was replaced by Thierry Fischer. Alina Ibragimova was the soloist in Richard Strauss' early Violin Concerto, performed alongside Edward Elgar's Serenade for Strings and Jean Sibelius Symphony No. 2.

The concert opened with the Elgar, revealing a string section numbering an impressive 50 or so players. The big difference between the sound world of this performance and that of a modern orchestra was that the OAE play on gut strings, which lends a warmth to the sound whilst offering less brilliance. The performing style is closer to that used by modern players, though the use of vibrato is more sparing. The result replaced the glossy sheen of the modern string section, with something warmer and more textural. This seemed a less violin-led sound, with greater detail in the inner parts. Fischer and the OAE gave us a quite cleanly phrased account of the music, and in the first movement I failed to detect any portamenti at all. These appeared, discreetly, in the second movement where we had a magically transparent sound with often just a thread of sound. The insouciant final movement gave us a lovely interplay between parts.

I have to confess that I spent part of the performance of Richard Strauss' Violin Concerto reprogramming the concert with a more well known middle piece.
The Strauss is a highly creditable work, an amazing piece when you consider that he was only 18 at the time. You felt the influence of Richard Strauss's father, Franz, who was profoundly anti-Wagner, and the style of the work is very conservative, evoking someone like Bruch, with little in the way of hints of the mature Strauss. Much of the orchestral writing was discreet, allowing the violin solo (written for Strauss' violin teacher) to shine with a big orchestral sound only in the tuttis. It was a fearsome solo part, and Alina Ibragimova played it with style and confidence, allowing the bravura to completely shine. Whilst there were moments of singing melody from the violin, quite often these moved back into technical challenges. This was one of those works which I was pleased to have heard, once, and will be happy to put back on the shelf, but I could not help wishing that we couldn't have heard Strauss' 1883 Horn Concerto No. 1 which was written for his father, or more radically Sibelius' Violin Concerto with Elgar's Enigma Variations to finish!

After the interval it was the turn of Sibelius' 1901 Symphony No. 2, a work which marks the beginning of Sibelius' mature sequence of symphonies and which, at first sight, does not seem to need to be re-discovered in period style. But the changes in the instruments between 1910 and 2019 might not be as much as between 2019 and 1789, yet they are significant. There is the string sound, which means that the orchestral tuttis are less string dominated, whilst the wind reeds have more tang and bite to them, and the brass's narrower bore gives a warmer, less penetrating tone. All this meant that we heard an account which was full of unexpected timbres and colours, as Sibelius constructed his mosaic of sound from all the small motifs there was an ebb and flow of colour and detail which was thoroughly absorbing.

Fischer kept the symphony on a relatively tight lead, allowing excitement to build slowly, the fragments in the first movement coalesced gradually, with a terrific build and release at the end. the second movement opened with a lovely nutty sound from the bassoons, and the wind passages took on a finely sombre timbre. The guest first oboe at the concert was Nicholas Daniel who was playing Leon Goossens' 1911 oboe, lent to him by Goossens' daughters [there is a video on YouTube in which Daniel introduces the instrument].

There was real bite to the tutti passages and some really chilly moments. Fischer kept the movement tightly controlled, yet impulsive. Fischer did not let the excitement of the faster sections get out of control, yet brought a wonderful release to the slow passages with a lovely spaciousness complemented by highly textural contrasts in colour from the instruments. The finale had all the thrill and excitement that one might have expected, but all the details were thrown into greater relief. And the bit tune at the end had a terrific texture, bite and tang. More please!

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  • Incredibly informative & inspiring: Charlotte Bray discusses her mentor Oliver Knussen in advance of her piece in his memory at the Aldeburgh Festival - interview
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