Benedetti plays Baroque with the OAE at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms Live – Vivaldi, Handel, Avison, J.S. Bach: Nicola Benedetti, Rudolfo Richter, Kati Debretzeni, Matthew Truscott (violins); Katharina Spreckelsen, Sarah Humphrys  (oboes); Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Jonathan Cohen (director/harpsichord), Royal Albert Hall, London, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Four, 3.9.2020. (CS)

Kati Debretzeni ,Nicola Benedetti, & the OAE (directed by Jonathan Cohen)
(c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Vivaldi – Concerto in D major for two violins RV 513
Handel – Concerto grosso in B flat major Op.3 No.2
Vivaldi – Concerto in D minor for two violins RV 514
Handel – Passacaglia, from Radamisto
Vivaldi – Concerto in A minor for two oboes RV 536
Charles Avison – Concerto grosso No.5 in D minor (after Scarlatti)
J.S. Bach – Concerto in D minor for two violins BWV 1043

‘The cavernous Royal Albert Hall auditorium is an ideal space to explore the clean harmonies and the decorative melodies of the Baroque concerto.’  One wonders who wrote the programme notes for this BBC Prom of baroque double concertos and concerti grossi?  This statement wasn’t the only eye-brow raising element during the evening of politely refined music-making by violinist Nicola Benedetti and the soloists and ensemble members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, under the genial, relaxed but rather innocuous direction of Jonathan Cohen.

The digital programme notes had gone awry, with accounts of Vivaldi and Handel mixed and muddled.  The Prom was introduced by soprano Danielle de Niese whose gushing and rather meaningless hyperbole seemed to coax the normally poised and focused scholar, performer and BBC presenter, Hannah French, to heights of similarly ecstatic, breathless froth.  And, most significantly, the Royal Albert Hall, bereft of an audience, seemed the least suitable venue that one could possibly imagine for this Baroque programme (why not re-locate to Cadogan Hall, St. Martin in the Fields, LSO St Luke’s or any of the other London venues and churches that have presented, or are preparing to house, live music-making with audiences in the coming weeks?).  That, despite the obstacles in their way, Benedetti and the OAE managed – after a slight chilly, nervous start – to communicate the music in an intimate, affectionate and bond-making manner, is greatly to their credit.  All the more so since Benedetti’s fellow-soloist was originally to have been Alina Ibragimova – they were Purcell School peers and friends – before Ibragimova withdrew because of a family bereavement.  This is not to disparage the fine playing of Rudolfo Richter, Kati Debretzeni and Matthew Truscott of the OAE, but there was a lack of spark at times.

The programme both pitted 18th-century European nations against each other and illuminated their interconnectedness – a politico-cultural context which sounds familiar, perhaps?  As if to emphasise the need for and benefits of ‘partnership’, double concertos were the staple here.  In conversation with de Niese, discussing Vivaldi’s concertos for two violins – written not for the illustrious soloists of the day but for the girls who were resident at the orphanage, convent and musical school, the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice – Benedetti highlighted the wildness and theatricality of Vivaldi’s concerti: the parts chase each other, “there’s nothing safe about Vivaldi”.  In the event, the performances of RV 313 and RV 314 were not exactly anarchical.  In the D major concerto, with the standing players of the OAE behind them, Rudolfo Richter kept a firm and unwavering eye on Benedetti, as if anxious to serve up the fare that she desired, even though Vivaldi allots the fiddlers equal roles.  In the opening movement, a warm ensemble sound was invigorated by the driving bass and harpsichord, and by the tripping lightness of the simple accompanying violin staccatos.  Benedetti and Richter supplemented the energy with dynamic surges and ebbs, and the bariolage was fluid and silky.  The slow movement introduced familiar points of counterpoint, though David Miller’s theorbo made them less ‘familiar’, and Cohen encouraged the players to shrink to nothingness in the winding, whispered suspensions over pianissimo pedal notes.  Cascading scales offered some thrill in the ensuing Finale; this was one of the few places where Benedetti’s sound had more ‘edge’ and bite than that of her fellow players.

For Vivaldi’s D minor RV 514 double concerto, Benedetti was joined by Kati Debretzeni, the latter taking the ‘first’ fiddle part.  One sensed, from her relaxed manner, smiles and ensemble-matching timbre and manner, that Benedetti was happy – no, delighted – to be part of a collective.  Both soloists wore their virtuosity lightly, borne aloft by Miller’s driving baroque guitar.  They stroked the strings with affection, and used familiar sequences to create anticipation and drama in the opening Allegro non molto.  The Adagio found Debretzeni shaping the phrases with deliberate emphasis, while Benedetti seemed to seek a more ethereal, spectral sound-world.  There was a jolting change of mood for the Allegro molto, which was lifted by Miller’s percussive baroque guitar and the gruff continuo bass, and by the soloists’ tricky, but confidently delivered, off-beat flourishes.

Intervening between the double violin concertos were concerto grossi, other concerti and a passacaglia.  No-one did stature and ceremony better than Handel, and this was confirmed by the Vivace which opened the Concerto grosso in B flat major Op.3 No.2, in which oboists Katharina Spreckelsen and Sarah Humphrys provided the contrasting lyricism and lilt.  Oscillating thirds in the cellos in the Largo churned the emotions, the mild turbulence of the latter conveyed by the intertwining contrapuntal lines.  The transparent counterpoint of the ensuing Allegro was followed by fleet wisps of wind from the ensemble strings in the Menuett, the latter moving segue into the happy conviviality of the Gavotte.  Some lovely, fresh bassoon playing enhanced the sense of freedom here, and Jonathan Cohen’s smile broadened – a gesture which, along with some slightly more vigorous nods of the head, injected a spurt of animation towards the close.

If Handel’s Op.3 No.2 was charming but rather unmemorable, then the same could be said for the Passacaglia from Radamisto, though again Miller’s contribution was both central and admirable.  The OAE players were obviously enjoying their musical conversations and the close-ups of the camera angles conveyed an intimacy which wasn’t perhaps felt by the musicians in the Hall.  In Vivaldi’s Concerto for two oboes RV 536, Spreckelsen and Humphrys sang the prevailing 3rd– and 6th-based ‘duets’ as if with one voice, by turns conjuring the insouciance of a pulsating dance, a gentle caress, and the image of fiery flames on the tails of musical motifs.  De Niese declared Charles Avison to be “almost forgotten”: he is surely not an unfamiliar figure to young and amateur string players for whom the Newcastle-born-and-domiciled organist-teacher-composer has provided a wealth of engaging material to explore?  Though the Concerto grosso No.5 in D minor (after Scarlatti) may be somewhat predictable there is still freshness and vibrancy which, in the hands of players such as the OAE, can surprise and invigorate.

If there was a ‘disappointment’, it was the ‘masterpiece’: Bach’s D minor concerto for two violins, in which Matthew Truscott partnered Benedetti.  Though the Vivace had fluency and the ripieno injected colour and character, there was a marked difference in the soloists’ approach with Benedetti offering more attack at the start of phrases and creating more steely, sculpted lines; and both soloists succumbed to minor ‘slips’.  Benedetti’s restrained vibrato in the Largo ma non tanto showed her ability to play as one of a group and to submit to their aesthetic, naturally and winningly.  But, for all the ‘purity’ of the solo violins’ web-spinning, there was an imbalance between the soloists, with Truscott’s higher-lying line failing to shine or assume due prominence (whether this was a result of the musicianship or the microphone engineering, I could not tell).  There was a discernible architectural form, but the movement did not acquire the ethereal transfiguring quality that it can.  The Allegro was dynamic but there was no fire, such as might have been garnered by the spirit of the preceding two movements.

We had an encore, chosen by the online audience: the Rondeau from Purcell’s Abdelazer.  The OAE musicians clearly enjoyed themselves, but the lack of an established etiquette at the close of the performance – just a smattering of light applause and a few awkward smiles and air hugs – illuminated both the strangeness of the performance circumstances and the terrible emptiness of the Royal Albert Hall, a blackness which had been kept fragilely at bay by the BBC’s sparkle-show, designed to out-shine and distract from the vacuum.

Claire Seymour

This concert is available if you click here. All of the 2020 Proms concerts can be accessed on BBC Sounds or watched on BBC iPlayer until Monday 12 October.

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