Created out of the period instrument movement, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) is dedicated to performing works on original instruments (or copies of them) so that audiences can hear music the way it was originally intended to be heard. A challenging feat for any orchestra, OAE, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, achieved just that, performing works by Wagner, Mahler and Liszt with playful enthusiasm and intense passion.

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

Opening with Wagner’s Prélude to Parsifal, OAE created a deeply romantic atmosphere instantly. As the piece progressed, the simple, tonal melody rang out against a backdrop of frenetic strings, lively woodwinds and assertive brass, creating a rich musical texture typical of Wagner’s style. Played in a very slow tempo, rather than sounding too lengthy or protracted, OAE successfully created a timeless effect as the melody floated across the stage.

Just as they’d done moments before, OAE easily transitioned between soft, gentler melodies and darker, harsher tones in Mahler’s Totenfeier (Funeral Rites). Originally conceived as a self-standing symphonic poem, Mahler later revised Totenfeier as the first movement of the Second Symphony, his so-called Resurrection Symphony. A clear struggle between life and death, the most eloquent moment of the piece could be heard in the double bass: a somber, creeping musical line felt like a personification of death itself, stalking the imaginary protagonist in the piece.

After the interval, OAE was joined by mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly in a performance of Mahler’s song cycle, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). Written in the aftermath of an unhappy love affair, Mahler’s anguish is strikingly apparent. Between the bittersweet folk-song phrases (played by the flutes and harps), Connolly’s effortless jumps from low to high, which created a spooky, almost pleading effect, as well as vivid imagery in the music and text, the agonizing effects of both the rhapsody of love and the painful despair of rejection radiated out to the audience.

Finally, OAE ended with Liszt’s Les Préludes, a symphonic poem that echoes many of the same themes put forth in Mahler’s Totenfeier. Written to reflect Liszt’s own questions about life and death, Les Préludes takes the audience on a journey through Love, Nature and Warfare, through which the protagonist ultimately finds redemption. Passionate throughout, OAE produced a sublime image of Nature in the middle of the piece. At one point, frenetic string playing opened up into one rich, harmonic chord, creating the feeling of standing alone in a vast, open field; the colorful trumpets and bright flutes only reinforced this pastoral image. But this tranquility did not last long. Soon the fanfare theme from the beginning returned in full force, re-asserting that the protagonist achieves salvation in warfare.

A truly exceptional group of musicians, OAE’s enthusiasm for period music is singular in London’s classical music scene. True to their slogan, ‘Not all orchestras are the same’, there really is no other ensemble like the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.