Mixed Performances of Mendelssohn from the OAE

Judging by a revelatory all-Mendelssohn concert recently heard at the Anvil, Basingstoke with Sir András Schiff and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, I had every reason to assume these performances at the Queen Elizabeth Hall would be equally exciting. But this outing – the final event in a mini-series featuring all five symphonies, the two piano concertos and the Violin Concerto – was a very mixed affair. Indeed, to borrow football parlance, it was a game of two halves: from a truly remarkable performance of the Violin Concerto, flawlessly shaped by Alina Ibragimova, there followed a workmanlike rendition of the Second Symphony.

In Jessica Duchen’s booklet essay, Schiff explains his preoccupation with Mendelssohn and likens his passion for the composer to a “love affair”. “The more I study Mendelssohn, the more I know about him”, he adds, also claiming to regard ‘Lobgesang’ as “a towering masterpiece”. That may be so, but there was much in the performance of this Symphony-Cantata that was earthbound, Schiff’s head periodically buried in the score and the choir of 40 professionals never quite rising to the occasion, climaxes underwhelming and lacking the ardour that Schiff claims to feel for this early Romantic.

Part of my disappointment belonged to Mendelssohn’s once-popular Biblical texts which abound in romantic sentiment. Even sung in German, as they were here, the Lutheran compilation occupies a high Victorian piety and, with few exceptions, rarely rises above the banal. Written in 1840 to mark the 400th anniversary of Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, this celebratory work is a multi-movement symphony-cantata offering thanks to God for the gifts printing had brought to European culture and learning. Without any dramatic curve, the all too frequent rejoicing and veneration of the Almighty is divided between solos, duets and choruses that outline a spiritual journey to enlightenment, a progression from patience and darkness to a vision of a better world. Despite stirring choruses and some delightful solo passages, not least the once popular duet ‘I waited for the Lord’, the work is now rather dated.

To the Sinfonia’s opening ‘Allegro’ (its motto theme profiled by ripe trombones), Schiff mostly brought purpose and shape, but his light, almost dance-like approach couldn’t hide the movement’s longueurs or its rhetoric. If not quite evoking the swirl of ballgowns, felicitous string and woodwind exchanges brought charm to the ‘Allegretto’, while stately brass added the nobility missing earlier from the start of the work. Strings brought a comforting glow to the ‘Adagio religioso’ aided and abetted by some mellifluous woodwind contributions. Thereafter, Schiff left the chorus to get on with things, enabling periodic excitement that showcased the strength of the bass section. Four-square direction from the podium provided little encouragement or inspiration and, what could have been gloriously uplifting, prompted questions about the unequal weight of voices. Perhaps I’m too used to hearing recordings of choirs that blaze with a visceral intensity. Admittedly, the singing here was fresh and athletic, and nicely tuned for the a cappella chorale ‘Nun danket alle Gott’. But ‘Die Nacht ist vergangen’ felt polite, its eventual climax arriving out of the blue. I longed for the choir to ‘cast off the works of darkness’ with more passion. And if that was at the expense of blend then so be it.  

On a more positive note, the soloists acquitted themselves well. Nick Pritchard’s amply upholstered tenor gave comfort for troubled souls and urged the heathen towards enlightenment. Lucy Crowe and Hilary Cronin shaped their single duet handsomely, if not quite singing with perfectly matched voices, while Crowe and Pritchard formed an expressive partnership in their flowing hymn of praise to God.

Earlier, there had been one of the finest performances of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto I can remember. Refinement and spontaneity flowed through this account with Alina Ibragimova as an inspirational soloist, her silvery tone blossoming to underpin a myriad of dynamic and timbral shading, suffused variously with bravura, playfulness and rumination. A tender ‘Andante’was a line of spun silk, hall-stilling in its purity and culminating in some daring pianissimo, a highwire act of stunning control. Unbuttoned joy, impish and impetuous, arrived with the finale, its near ceaseless momentum dispatched with aplomb. Throughout, the players of the OAE were exemplary collaborators; wonderfully light on their feet, yet assertive when required and always alert to Ibragimova’s dazzling virtuosity.

David Truslove

Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 54,Symphony No. 2 in B flat, Op. 52 ‘Lobgesang’

Alina Ibragimova (violin), Lucy Crowe & Hilary Cronin (sopranos), Nick Pritchard (tenor), Choir & Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Sir András Schiff

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 26 April 2024

Photo by Doug Buist