Inspired Bach from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, The Brandenburg Concertos: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. St John’s, Smith Square, London.  2.5.2017. (CC)

No.1: Huw Daniel (violino piccolo/director); Katharina Spreckelsen (oboe); Roger Montgomery, Nicholas Benz (horns)
No.5: Huw Daniel (violin/director); Lisa Beznosiuk (flute); Steven Devine (harpsichord)
No.4: Huw Daniel (violin/director); Rebecca Miles, Ian Wilson (recorders)
No.6: Simone Jandl, Max Mandel (violas); Richard Tunnicliffe, Emily Ashton (gambas); Luise Buchberger (cello); Cecelia Bruggemeyer (violone); Steven Devine (harpsichord)
No.2: Huw Daniel (violin/director); Rebecca Miles (recorder); Katharina Spreckelsen (oboe); David Blackadder (trumpet)

Without doubt this was one of the finest concerts of the season so far. Even despite the indisposition of violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk (covered by the excellent Huw Daniel), the performances were of stratospheric standard. Bach’s well-loved “standards” sounded as fresh as if the ink was still wet.

The St John’s acoustic is not perfect for this repertoire, but detail was rarely a problem, even at the sometimes rapid tempi, a clear testament to the intelligence of the present musicians. Taking A at 415Hz and a one-to-a-part authenticist stance points to the care of preparation; the musical results brought the music to life, as relevant today as in the early 1720s. The playing order was Nos. 1, 3 and 5 in the first half; Nos. 4, 6 and 2 (in that order) in the second.

All credit to the nimble horn players Roger Montgomery and Nicholas Benz in the First Concerto, their rusticity adding delicious character to the first movement, the OAE’s overall sound remarkably bright and alive. Huw Daniel’s piercing yet beautiful violin piccolo illuminated the Adagio second movement (of four – the only concerto to depart from the three movement model); it was the perfect foil for the rapid-fire Allegro that follows. The gallant finale held impeccable oboe trills (Mark Baigent).

The Third Concerto, the shortest of the six, for strings with harpsichord, was given an affectionate reading. Seating the players highest to the left and then in descending pitch around a semicircle meant that Bach’s passing of material from high to low pitch had a delicious spatial element. Sprightly and sprung, the opening movement balanced the scamperings of the finale, the latter notable for their astonishing accuracy.

The famous No.5, with its extended cadenza for harpsichord, was given a suave account. If Steven Devine’s contribution was not quite a match for the experienced Trevor Pinnock at the Wigmore Hall in December last year, his nimble fingers nevertheless impressed. But interpretatively, this was pure triumph; harmonic plateaux in the first movement opened out to rhythmic, bright places. Devine’s cadenza was lovely and varied. The flute and violin duet of the second movement was wonderfully fluid, while the spare textures of the finale were nothing short of magical.

Post-interval, the recorder timbres of No.4 posed no problems of balance at all. Rebecca Miles and Ian Wilson were superb exponents of the recorder’s art; Daniel’s violin was capable of seemingly miraculous speed. The players also sought out every ounce of drama from this concerto’s finale. The concerto as a whole represented quite the dramatic journey. No.6, in contrast, seems to hearken back to an earlier time, with its viola, gamba and violone textures. The two violas of Simone Jandl and Max Mandel provided constant delight in their interactions, while the cello of Luise Bechberger sang in the most beautiful fashion. The syncopations of the finale were beautifully alive.

It was a good decision to end with the bright, virtuosic Second Concerto. The terrifyingly high trumpet part was in the safest of hands, those of David Blackadder who gave a well-nigh impeccable account of the solo part; spectacularly even, rapid lip trills in particular were awe-inducing. Almost equalling this was the eloquence of Katharina Spreckelsen’s oboe contributions in the second movement. If the attack of Blackadder’s first entry of the final was the tiniest of Achilles heels, there was no denying the infectious vivacity of this finale. A great way to end a great concert.

The OAE are touring the UK with some or all of the Brandenburgs, despite only returning from New York last Friday. No rest for the positively inspired, obviously.

Colin Clarke

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