Period instruments and historically informed practice have revolutionised the way much classical music has been performed for decades. "The Berlioz Experience", a weekend masterminded by Roger Norrington here at the Southbank Centre in 1988, was one of the first to extend the exploration into the Romantic era. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment – often with Norrington at the helm – have led the charge. I love the OAE’s pioneer spirit, but this evening’s concert, which paired Hector Berlioz with Felix Mendelssohn, proved a disappointment.

Sarah Connolly © Jan Capinski
Sarah Connolly
© Jan Capinski

The OAE played without a conductor. Kati Debretzeni led from the violin, standing rather than sitting, usually with no more than a nod or a raised bow stroke. That’s all very collegiate but the performances lacked a singular vision or drive. Antony Pay’s clarinet promised much, rippling through the opening phrases of Mendelssohn’s The Fair Melusina – a watery, Rusalka-like tale – but too often woodwind-led passages led to slips in ensemble. It’s difficult to force the pace when you’re at the back of the platform.

Berlioz was such a daring colourist that his music should be meat and drink to period ensembles. There are few delights to match French bassoons, as ripe as Camembert, parping their March to the Scaffold in the Symphonie fantastique. However, the OAE seemed timid in its application of colour to both Berlioz works this evening. Sarah Connolly was the soloist in Les nuits d’été, a setting of six poems by Théophile Gautier. This song cycle traverses many moods, opening and closing vivaciously, but enfolding ghostly songs of love and loss within. Gloomy woodwinds mourned in “Sur les lagunes” and the harp tingled with rapt excitement in “Le Spectre de la rose” but too often the work felt drawn in pastels – soft and smudged – rather than anything more striking. Connolly sang with great smoothness and excellent diction, dynamics scrupulously observed. It was a very contained performance, often beautifully hushed. Crisper wind chords were required at the start of “Absence” though and the coquettish finale, “L’île inconnue”, lacked any flirtatiousness. A safe, pallid reading of this most sensuous of cycles.

The brief Rêverie et Caprice for solo violin and orchestra, composed in the same year as Les nuits d’été, started life as an aria in Benvenuto Cellini, rejected by the soprano and thus replaced. Debretzeni was an amiable soloist, though the OAE’s intonation was variable.

Things eventually took off in the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, launched at a sprightly tempo. It was as if the sun had finally burst from behind the clouds, many of the orchestra’s players wreathed in smiles. Woodwinds chortled, the strings beamed. A little Italian sunshine is much appreciated in London in February. After the first movement, Debretzeni took to the microphone to announce that for the remaining three movements, the OAE would play Mendelssohn’s 1834 revision, written a year after the symphony’s first London performance. Apparently, Felix couldn’t decide how to revise the first movement and, after he died in 1847, his heirs decided to stick with the original version which Fanny, his sister, much preferred.

Mendelssohn simplified the melody of the Pilgrims’ March, smoothing out the contours. The third movement minuet is expanded, as is the finale, where the second subject has a recapitulation. The OAE gave it plenty of energy, but flute and horn tuning marred the final two movements. Hearing familiar music in unfamiliar guise is always interesting, but when it comes to Mendelssohn’s revisions, I’m with Fanny.