Simon Rattle and the OAE
A vivid French evening at the Royal Festival Hall
This was a terrific concert. Even the torrential June (June!) rain and the prospect of the late-night London-Bristol train couldn’t dampen my smile and elation as I made my way home afterwards – the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE), with conductor Simon Rattle and pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, had just given one of those performances that makes you both alert to fresh details and able to luxuriate in a rich world of sounds.
Theirs was a sound-world of period instruments – think gut strings – twinned with a cinematic ability to tell stories and present images. In Fauré’s four-movement Pelléas et Melisande Suite – taken from his much longer incidental music to Maeterlinck’s play, they found poignancy in the gently turned spinning song and limpidly bittersweet 'Sicilienne'. And, with its tragic ending, Fauré’s work became a prelude to the dark world inhabited by Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard chose to play an Erard piano, which had a strong, grounded sound that gave the music, even with its bright flashes of jazz, a brooding soul. From the subterranean opening, with elemental double basses and contrabassoon, to the pained bursts of light with which it ends, this Concerto was given a thrilling performance. Sadly, Aimard’s Debussy encore – Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir – was less vividly engaging.
No matter. There was plenty of scope to enjoy Debussy’s orchestral imagination in the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and La mer. The OAE seems to be edging ever further into the 20th century with their period performance approach. Here, the earthy diversity of the group’s sound seemed ideal for music indebted to the natural world: a willowy flute lazily unfolded its solo line, harps glistened like sun on water. In La mer, there was a powerful undertow of energy running throughout the three movements: overall sweep and colourful detail in a happy balance.
As I hurried out of the hall to catch my train, one of the OAE’s enterprising entourage turned a video camera at me to ask for my response to the concert. I didn’t have time to stop, but perhaps it was for the best: I’d probably just have grinned inanely.