OAE: Embers of Romanticism

Embers of Romanticism
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Geoffrey Paterson
OAE Player, Available online from 10 February 2020

Webern (1883-1945): Passacaglia
Wagner (1813-1883): Prelude & Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
Pfitzner (1869-1949): Act 2 Vorspiel from Palestrina
Richard Strauss (1864-1949): ‘Interlude’ from Salome
Wagner: Act 3 Vorspiel from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

In this 45-minute long on-line concert (originally intended as a cancelled live concert in March 2020) the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has come up with a striking departure from their usual repertoire. Although they have ventured well away from the historical Age of Enlightenment before, this concert, curated and arranged by OAE principal horn, Roger Montgomery, is a particularly inventive bit of programme planning. Playing instruments from the late Romantic era, they present a programme of music by Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Anton Webern and Hans Pfitzner composed during the dying embers of the Romantic era. Through direct references and thematic inferences, the music is based on Thomas Mann’s 1947 novel Doctor Faustus. In the novel (which has the sub-title of The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn, Told by a Friend), the composer enters into a pact with the devil in which he trades his soul for artistic and musical genius. The concert is available, for a moderate fee, via the OAE Player.

They opened with Webern’s 1908 Passacaglia (Op.1). It was composed as his graduation piece following studies with Schoenberg and is the first of his works to be given an Opus Number. Harking back to the early Baroque era in its name and structural form, it opens gently with the evocative eight-note bass line that forms the backbone of the piece. Drawing on high German Romanticism for its influence, it quickly gains power and orchestral colour with tantalising elements of the emerging Second Viennese school. Playing with an economical string line-up of 1-1-1-1-1 (led by Kati Debretzeni), the focus was on the detailed texture of the strings and the distinctive sounds of the period woodwind. This was particularly evident in the Prelude & Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde performed with just 19 players.

Pfitzner’s 1917 Palestrina was an opera that Thomas Mann admired, to the extent that in his novel he uses the Italian hillside town of Palestrina as the place where the composer makes his pact with the Devil. In the opera, the composer Palestrina uses spirits of dead composers to inspire his compositions. The Vorspiel to Act 2 is set in the Great Hall in Cardinal Madruscht’s Palace as it is being prepared for the final session of the Council of Trent. The tiny extract from Richard Strauss’s Salome depicts a dramatic outburst of pure rage from Salome as she is rejected and cursed by John the Baptist.

Wagner’s Die Meistersinger reflects a crisis in music and a wish for the art to be invigorated, a theme reflected in Mann’s Doctor Faustus, albeit with a different ‘crisis’. In this chamber version, the magical opening of the Act 3 Vorspiel depicts dawn with a cello solo, beautifully played by Catherine Rimer, before the rest of the string quartet take up the theme. This is almost certainly the very first time that I have been able to compliment the OAE string players for their excellent portamento! A wonderfully delicate ending to an inspiring concert.

In his paired down versions of these late Romantic masterworks, Roger Montgomery reflected, appropriately, a practice during the 1919/21 Spanish Flu outbreak when music societies arranged large scale compositions for smaller ensembles. These reductions included work like Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and his Fourth Symphony. Roger Montgomery’s own reductions for this concert are expertly managed and crafted, retelling the late Romantic story in chamber orchestra format.

In what I think might have been his OAE debut, conductor Geoffrey Paterson impressed me with his subtle direction and focus on the music rather than the personality of the conductor. It was filmed in the Henry Wood Hall, with the musicians in a socially distanced format.