This concert by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was an example of a great idea, beautifully executed, but hobbled by the format. The idea was to curate a sequence of music linked in some way to Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus. Mann’s novel, published in 1947, is about a composer who makes a diabolical pact with Satan though, as in most variations of the story, he doesn’t quite get what he bargained for. All of the music on this programme was linked with the novel in some way, sometimes explicitly, sometimes by association. Mann famously loved Wagner, for example, and the harmonic dislocations of Tristan look forward to the social and psychological traumas of the fin de siècle and beyond. He also loved Pfitzner’s Palestrina, and the Italian hillside town of Palestrina is the place where Mann’s hero makes his deal with the devil. Furthermore, Mann’s hero, who was actually based on Nietzsche, attends the premiere of Salome, alongside other contemporary titans like Mahler and Webern.

The OAE woodwinds
© Zen Grisdale

It’s an inspired concept, and right up my personal street because I find that whole world of early 20th-century culture fascinating and endlessly rewarding to explore. However, the circumstances of the pandemic mean that its execution was a little uneven. It was necessary to perform the scores in reduced arrangements, of course, and those arrangements were done extremely well by Roger Montgomery, the OAE’s principal horn. Sometimes they work very well indeed, particularly in Webern’s Passacaglia where the aural austerity and straitened textures gave the music marvellous transparency. With such a small band the textures glinted like diamonds against the rock, and that was mirrored by the changing colours of the visuals, which gave the whole the effect of a musical kaleidoscope.

However, Montgomery used single strings throughout, one musician standing in for a whole section, and if that brought some gains then it meant that, against multiple winds, the strings lost in an unequal fight, particularly evident in the Wagner extracts. The openings of the Tristan and Meistersinger (Act 3) preludes couldn’t avoid sounding wan when played by a solo cello, and the five string players got a little lost when the fuller complement of winds and brass entered. It seems churlish to complain about being short-changed when they played with such commitment, but it left me sighing with disappointment.

Geoffrey Paterson conducts the OAE
© Zen Grisdale

That said, even here the transparency worked: I’ve never been able to make out the rippling winds at the climax of the Liebestod as clearly as I did here, for example, and I was genuinely surprised at the sound they made in the Salome extract. They played the furious four minutes between Jochanaan’s return to the cistern and Herod’s entry, which you’d think would be asking for trouble in an ensemble this size but, helped by a piano to bulk up the texture, it worked rather better. So, too, did the Palestrina prelude, busy and surging with a little relaxation for breath just before the end. Conductor Geoffrey Paterson shaped the music reliably, if not always excitingly.

It was still a little disappointing, though, despite the commitment and intelligence that clearly went into it. Do it with a full scale symphony orchestra and it would be sensational. We can dream.

This performance was reviewed from the OAE Player video stream

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