Not all orchestras are the same. That’s what the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment would like you to remember about it. Which in turn prompts the question what it is that makes it so radically different from the rest.

Isabelle Faust
© Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

It’s not the programming for a start, at least on the evidence of this concert. Mendelssohn and Schumann are pretty standard fare: the Hebrides overture could so easily have ceded place to The Fair Melusine or Ruy Blas, and Schumann has other minor jewels to offer like the Overture, Scherzo and Finale or the early Zwickau Symphony in G minor. But the presence of his Violin Concerto in D minor was more than welcome, having been neglected by fiddlers for too long and derided by critics for its apparent lack of formalism and repetitiousness.

It needs a soloist with a strong personality to make it come alive. Isabelle Faust, accompanied by Antonello Manacorda, certainly has that. Her first entry, after a correspondingly rough-hewn orchestral introduction, with jackhammers at the ready, suggested a steeliness and assertiveness not far from the heroic. Rhythmically sharp throughout, she negotiated with aplomb the octave leaps and then the rapid passagework which closes the first movement. In both the short slow movement and Finale, the earlier steeliness gave way to a silkiness of tone, the heartfelt quality of her playing emerging quite naturally. Though Schumann marks the concluding movement “Lively, but not fast”, it benefits from a quicker basic pulse than we had here, the elements of a celebratory polonaise often yielding to a stately minuet.

Isabelle Faust, Antonello Manacorda and the OAE
© Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

The writing for the solo instrument explores the lower register quite considerably, which is why a careful balance with the orchestra is essential. This in turn brings us to the role of the accompanist. Manacorda has a long pedigree stretching back to the early days of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. I would have expected much greater sensitivity to the balancing of textures and also a deeper awareness of cantabile line. The horns were a specific problem throughout, beginning with Mahlerian blasts in the overture and a much too prominent role in the concerto, drowning out not only the solo line but also the inner harmonies in strings and woodwind. It made little sense for Manacorda to pick out almost every instance of horn ornamentation rather than other felicities of the scoring. His lion-tamer theatrics and lunging into individual string sections, with a curious mixture of angular sweeps and elegant arcs to his baton, made little difference to the orchestral response.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
© Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Schumann’s famous duality, the oscillation between the inward and the outgoing, expressed in his own use of the ciphers Eusebius and Florestan, was insufficiently conveyed in this performance of the Symphony no. 2 in C major. Even at the start of the Scherzo, where the strings should have all the attention culminating in a burst of exhilaration at the end, the horns were busy marking out their territory, having brayed almost incessantly like donkeys in the opening movement. Schumann’s demonic undercurrents simply do not need to be underlined and emphasised at every juncture.

Some amends came in the heart of this symphony, the Adagio espressivo, where Manacorda shaped the string lines with finely graduated dynamics, the slow and solemn tread reminding me of the Pilgrims’ Procession in Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony. With sledgehammer chords from the full orchestra punctuating the Finale, the exultant qualities of C major emerged triumphantly, but at some overall cost.

This concert was certainly different. I have my doubts about Manacorda’s realisation of German Romantic feeling, but why be on the side of tradition when iconoclasm beckons?