When reviewing a concert, “familiarity breeds contempt” isn’t quite right. Rather, familiarity breeds extra demands: when you know every note of a work intimately, you insist on the performers doing something special to bring it to life and take the experience out of the ordinary. All the more so when the work is Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 3, whose structure is so mathematical and full of symmetries that your ears are primed for each subtle variation in accent or phrasing to give it life. At Kings Place, last night, the English Chamber Orchestra opened with Brandenburg 3 and didn’t succeed in meeting those demands. The pace was there, the togetherness was there, the balance was there, but the performance had a certain workmanlike feel to it, with little to make it memorable.

Vilde Frang © Marco Borggreve
Vilde Frang
© Marco Borggreve

That all changed with the arrival of soloist Vilde Frang for the two Bach violin concerti, the A minor, BWV1041 and the E major, BWV1042. Frang has notable stage presence, not least because she is extremely tall and willowy slim, but shut your eyes and her presence is just as evident: even when she was simply first among equals in the ensemble passages, the timbre she obtains from her 19th-century instrument was unmissable. Here was all the extra accenting and variation in timing detail needed to give a lift to a bright passage or languid breathing space to a slow one. The ECO seemed galvanised into action, adding far more character to each passage than they had been able to do before Frang’s appearance. The slow movement of the A minor concerto showed the interplay between soloist and orchestra at its best, with a lovely call-and-response feel.

This was a good demonstration of how it can be OK to be unHIP. Frang's violin was not Baroque, but her tone was beautifully clean, with finely calibrated use of vibrato to add a touch of extra character to a note without ever lapsing into an overblown romantic mush. Her timing on the fast decorative figures was precise, her control of evenness on long held pianissimo notes was exceptional. The second movement of the E major concerto was ravishing: the ECO produced lovely dark colours and the brightness of Frang’s violin line cut through them like a sunbeam. The players were unafraid of the pauses, allowing a moment of silence before Bach’s music returned to wrap you up in its beauty. Perhaps, though, Frang wasn’t enjoying the experience: there was no encore and she more or less dragged the ECO’s leader Stephanie Gonley off the stage to cut short the half-time applause.

After the break, Gonley returned with five other ECO members to perform the original string sextet version of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. The work is a wordless setting of a darkly beautiful and uplifting poem by Richard Dehmel: walking through a dark wood at night, a woman confesses to her lover that she is bearing another man’s child; after a moment’s pause, he forgives her and affirms the warmth of their love. It’s a work to delight lovers of lush, late Romantic harmony.

The opening evocation of Dehmel’s “kahlen, kalten Hain” (“bleak, cold glade”) was handled wonderfully, followed by the scurrying urgency and increasing intensity of the woman’s desperation at her confession. And there were several highlights of the performance, particularly at the extremes of the dynamic range – the climaxes, the extreme pianissimi with high harmonics. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that the music rather lost its way in the middle section, partly due to balance not being quite right (with two each of violin, viola and cello, it’s all too easy for the sound to end up bottom-heavy), and partly from the players not really signposting the transitions between sections in a way that really told on my ears. The ending, however, was outstanding: soft pizzicato, airy violin arpeggios and the most delicate of evanescent high harmonics to finish.