For a couple of hours Simon Rattle left Pelléas and Mélisande to their private musings. Finding a spare evening away from his current occupation with Debussy’s opera at Covent Garden, Rattle resumed his long-term relationship with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for this concert on Tuesday.
The programme was all Dvorák: the Cello Concerto, played by Steven Isserlis, and the Symphony No. 6. Although the two composers were at work at the same time (Dvorák completed his Cello Concerto just as Debussy was putting the finishing touches to the first draft of his opera) there is a world of difference between
them. The Dvorák works felt so hearty by comparison, placing him on the musical family
tree as second cousin to Brahms – not a composer for whom Rattle has ever shown much affinity.
Working with period instruments, however, is a different matter. It is ancient history to recall that Rattle was one of the first mainstream conductors to work regularly
with period instruments, but it means he approaches performing with the OAE in a completely open way. Conductors who are period specialists still have their theories to prove; Rattle simply makes music.
The performance of the Cello Concerto was rather wilful, but not unpleasantly so. Rattle was as free here as he might have been with the Berliner Philharmoniker, slowing up for the first big tune like a driver slamming on the brakes to admire an especially nice view – a breathtaking moment, but not an effect one might want to
Isserlis, playing on his 1730 Stradivarius, excelled in
lyrical passages, but was in danger of being overwhelmed
by the orchestra, even the
more delicate period sounds
of the OAE.
In a similar way, the Symphony No. 6 lived at extremes, where it found its inspiration. Although the OAE was at less than its most precise – wind playing was rarely together and tuning was even more “authentic” than usual – it made a big difference to hear the gentle melancholy sound of the period flute and horns that sang rather than brayed. In the last two movements Rattle really made the sparks fly.