Wednesday 16 February 2022

Mendelssohn and Schumann from Antonello Manacorda and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Antonello Manacorda and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in rehearsal (Photo: the OAE)
Antonello Manacorda & the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in rehearsal
(Photo: the OAE)

Mendelssohn The Hebrides Overture, Schumann Violin Concerto, Symphony No. 2; Isabelle Faust, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Antonello Manacorda; Royal Festival Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 February 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Schumann's highly personal second symphony paired with the less well known and rather experimental late violin concerto in an evening of powerful performances and striking timbres and colours

We have a somewhat complex relationship with Robert Schumann's output and whilst his symphonies are no longer routinely re-orchestrated and 'corrected', we can still be somewhat selective. The latest concert by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) as part of their season The Wilderness Pleases, rather demonstrated this, pairing two mature Schumann works, one routinely performed, the other rather less so. At the Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday 15 February 2022, Antonello Manacorda [see my recent interview with him] conducted the OAE in a programme that paired Schumann's Symphony No. 2 in C major (from 1846) with his Violin Concerto (from 1853) with Isabelle Faust as the soloist. The concert opened with Mendelssohn's The Hebrides Overture.

In The Hebrides Overture the young Mendelssohn (just 21 when it was premiered) demonstrated his mastery of small-scale symphonic form. With apparently effortless ease he took the classical concert overture and pushed in the direction of the tone poem, creating a work that is at once classically balanced and highly descriptive. It was very clear from the opening notes that Antonello Manacorda relished the timbres and textures of the period instruments, and the new relationships that these instruments create, so that at the opening it was very much the wind instruments' moment until the violins entered. Manacorda's speeds were on the steady side, allowing plenty of space for detail, and this brought out the works descriptive nature rather than it being simply an orchestral showpiece. There was plenty of excitement and climax, but always within context, and the care with balance and dynamic meant that Mendelssohn's spatial effects in the music came over well.

Schumann's relationship with symphonic form was complex; his symphonies did not quite come out in the seamless manner that their numbering implies, there were also stray symphonic movements and whilst he only wrote three 'proper' concertos, there are in fact seven concertante works. His Violin Concerto was written in 1853, in the wake of hearing violinist Joseph Joachim in Beethoven's Violin Concerto. Joachim was not impressed, and though Joachim gave the work an orchestral play-through with the composer present, it was never publicly performed and was omitted from the collected edition of the composer's works and the manuscript squirrelled away, effectively hidden until rediscovered in the 1930s and performed. It has never achieved the popularity of the earlier concertos, and it is clear from the work that Schumann's view of symphonic form was changing. 

The work shies away from classic sonata form, without ever moving in the direction of the more dramatic and descriptive (Berlioz' Harald in Italy, Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony), nor does he quite radically reinvent the form in the manner of Liszt's Second Piano Concerto. Instead he tries something different. He is certainly not interested in creating a classic concerto in the Romantic mold. Whilst the long orchestral introduction set things up admirably, and included a profusion of themes, when the violin came in it seemed to be almost in the middle of something, the continuation of a discussion and it can be argued that the movement is more orchestrally symphonic with the violin simply being part of the argument. Certainly the solo part, whilst very taxing, is not always terribly showy and you could understand why Joachim might not be keen on the piece. Throughout, the violin was kept busy and both the first and third movements had a lot of string crossing and passage-work, reserving the lyrical beauty for the second movement.

Both Manacorda and Isabelle Faust clearly feel passionate about the work, and neither tried to turn the concerto into something that it is not. Faust was devastating in the complex solo part, producing strong and characterful music that became part of the symphonic dialogue Manacorda created with the orchestra. The second movement was more obviously lyrically grateful, and after a short orchestral introduction which was lovely in its own right, the soloist started spinning elegant, fine-grained lines over the orchestra, with Faust making the meandering quality of the violin line seem highly concentrated and focused. The final movement returned to the up tempo feel, with lots of perky details without ever quite blowing away the melancholy feel of the earlier movements. This is technically a Polonaise, and eventually Schumann reaches approachability and writes music that might be danceable, but largely the movement was about the idea of a Polonaise. 

We are familiar with 20th century composers who redefined what a concerto was, avoiding classical models, and what makes Schumann's Violin Concerto fascinating is to see a composer in the 1850s doing just that, re-inventing classical models and confounding our expectations about what a concerto as for.

We were treated to an encore, Faust and the orchestra played an arrangement of the Romanze from Brahms' Six pieces for piano, Op. 118 (written in 1893 and dedicated to Clara Schumann).

We were on surer ground in the second half with Schumann's Symphony No. 2 in C major, or were we? Here Schumann uses the symphonic form to almost examine his own personal concerns, creating a sense of symphonic struggle that reflected his own personal health and mental problems. And we are learning that performing this music on period instruments effectively reinvents it, as Schumann's sound-world is transformed. Again Manacorda gave plenty of space for detail, bringing out the huge variety of texture and colour in the work. The opening theme had a restless quality that developed in the main Allegro where the music had a nervous energy that would run through almost the entire symphony. Manacorda never pushed the music, we were never at full pelt for long, and the music ebbed and flowed though the ending built to something almost positive. The Scherzo was full of tight rhythms and energy, rather harder edged than Mendelssohn's fairies, and of the two trios the first was light-hearted and full of colour, the second lyrical and strongly phrased. The opening of the slow movement was notable for the lovely oboe melody, but Manacorda encouraged the players to bring out the complexity of the whole piece, the sense that this was a complex multi-layered construction, and as the movement grew it developed in warmth and intensity leading directly into the final movement where the energy and warmth seemed vigorous and positive, at last, though hard won. Rhythms remained tight, yet there was a sense of real enjoyment leading to an affirmative ending.

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