Friday night's performance by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the Royal Festival Hall under Vladimir Jurowski got off to a slow and somewhat insecure start. Sixth in the series of concerts by the orchestra in the 2010-2011 season, sub-titled Symphonic Enlightenment, the concert opened with the Prelude to Parsifal by Wagner.

With its rather aimless melodic lines and elusive rhythm, the Prelude is not an easy piece to get to grips with at the best of times. Despite being a veteran opera conductor, Jurowski appeared to be somewhat tentative in his approach to the work, losing his way at times as if meandering in the woods, and then finding his way back. Perhaps he was mimicking Parsifal’s hapless search for the Holy Grail. Playing on “period” instruments, the orchestra had a particularly subdued tone lacking in majesty and grace necessary in this dreamy and quiet work.

A last-minute switch placed Mahler’s Totenfeier second in the programme for the evening. Originally composed in 1888 as a standalone symphonic work, it was subsequently revised in 1893 to form the first movement of his second symphony, dubbed Resurrection. This was also Mahler’s first attempt at music for orchestra alone after early attempts at songs for solo voice and orchestra.

Literally translated as funeral rites or ceremony, Totenfeier is a work of sharply contrasting themes. Mahler's inspiration for Totenfeier was apparently a poetic novel by Adam Mickiewicz in which the protagonist commits suicide after the girl he loves marries a rich duke.

Totenfeier opens with a shuddering but resolute theme on the lower strings, followed by the woodwinds, signaling an ineluctable death march. Pitted against this are idyllic fragments of brightness representing the freshness of nature on strings and horns. Despite valiant attempts, the fleeting moments of optimism fail to triumph over the shroud of darkness.

Although Jurowski’s approach to Tontenfeier is comparatively more confident, it remained somewhat tentative and his control over the piece was tenuous. The death march was not sombre enough, and the bright spots not radiant enough. Besides, there were rough edges throughout that needed some polishing.

All of this changed after the interval, when the orchestra was pared down to a much smaller size to accompany mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly in the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Travelling Apprentice or Wayfarer). The four songs in the collection were written soon after Mahler ended a love affair with a singer, Johanna Richter, in Kassel, Germany.

The moods of the four songs range from contemplative sorrow, as in When My Sweetheart is Married, to subdued sense of joy, as in I Went This Morning over the Field, to brutal pangs of pain, as in I Have a Gleaming Knife. Connolly’s controlled phrasing brought out the full subtlety of the moods. Although the songs are often sung by a tenor, the deep sonority of Connolly’s voice effectively accentuated the plight of the depressed protagonist and the intensity of his pain. At the same time, Jurowski and the orchestra provided a spirited but steady backdrop to Connolly, without being intrusive.

The final item in the programme was Les Préludes by Liszt, who is said to be the originator of the symphonic (or tone) poem, a musical work for orchestra often inspired by a literary work. Originally conceived to be the overture to choral setting of four poems by Joseph Autran, the work is later described by Liszt as being “D’après Lamartine”, or a response to the poem Méditations poetique by Alphonse Lamartine. He even added an excerpt from the poem to accompany the score: “What else is our life than a series of preludes to an unknown song, whose first and solemn notes are intoned by death?”

Les Préludes appears to depict musically the ups and down of man’s life, quietly emerging from the torments and joys of youth, to the pinnacle of achievement in mid-life, and celebratory acceptance of destiny in old age. Under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski, the OAE vigorously flexed its expressive muscles, moving through distinct moods of contemplative introspection, fluid lyricism, trembling fear and assertive triumph. In this work, the seeming lack of volume of the period instruments in the opening work of the concert was no longer an impediment. As Jurowski’s towering frame swayed, the orchestra responded.

By the end of the concert, the OAE and Jurowski had totally redeemed themselves, providing a fitting tribute to Liszt during the bicentenary of his birth this year.