Expect some high-octane performances in the concert hall this year. With the bicentenary of Liszt’s birth and the centenary of Mahler’s death both falling in 2011, there is ample excuse for orchestras to pull out the big guns for a salute to the double anniversary that will set the decibel levels soaring.
And not only the standard symphony orchestras. On Friday, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment forsook its usual baroque and classical repertoire to venture into the era of the late romantics. Extra passengers had to be invited on board for the ride and the number of players in the orchestra must have doubled in size from what we generally see.
The irony is that, even with the Royal Festival Hall stage filled with musicians, the volume was less than usual. Period instruments simply do not make as much noise. In the Prelude to Wagner’s Parsifal the sound was strangely insubstantial – flutes that cooed plaintively, ethereal strings that floated in air, a trumpet of lyrical sweetness rather than bright force.
That was the curtainraiser. From there Vladimir Jurowski and the OAE offered an anniversary programme: Mahler’s Totenfeier and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, followed by Liszt’s Les Préludes. In place of the usual hard-nosed display of orchestral virtuosity, Mahler’s Totenfeier (the early version of the opening movement of his Second Symphony) came across as a slightly ramshackle construction of wildly imaginative, often poetic sounds – despite Jurowski’s speed and customary faultless grip on every detail. It was like making a familiar journey in the dark: the obvious landmarks were in place, but much felt different, the destination unclear.
In the Mahler song cycle Sarah Connolly sounded completely at ease, even where the vocal part goes awkwardly high. It was an unforced performance in every way, short on intensity, but offering compensation in its intimate dovetailing with the various instrumental solos. Then Les Préludes summoned the full force of the orchestra for the final showdown. Normally, this orchestral showpiece would make a blazing ending, but with its edges softened, its corners rounded, its mass lightened, even a piece of Liszt at his most barnstorming can seem quite modestly ingratiating.