The closure of the Queen Elizabeth Hall for renovation is great news for St John's Smith Square, with many recitals and period instrument bands being relocated there from the Southbank during the refurbishment. Often referred to as ‘Queen Anne’s Footstool’, the 1728 church’s fine setting and generous acoustic make it perfect for Baroque repertoire. Those credentials were thoroughly endorsed in a beautifully proportioned concert by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment directed by the doyenne of British Baroque violinists, Rachel Podger. From solo Bach to a concerto for four violins, they demonstrated many strings to their bows.

Rachel Podger © Jonas Sacks
Rachel Podger
© Jonas Sacks

On a cold November evening, how delightful to be whisked away to Venice’s lagoons for a pair of Vivaldi concerti. Italian sunshine suffused St John’s during the E minor violin concerto from the Red Priest’s La Stravaganza. Podger displayed easy virtuosity in the bustling outer movements, while the central one had a recitative storytelling element. Vivaldi’s taste for drama was even more evident in the G minor concerto for two violins and cello from his L’estro armonico collection. The OAE responded in kind, with vivid attack and a variety of tonal colours. The discursive nature of the material between the two violins and cello brought to mind Corelli’s great concerti grossi. Podger, Matthew Truscott and cellist Andrew Skidmore proved most engaging conversationalists.

Vivaldi racked up over 200 violin concerti. His pupil Johann Georg Pisendel was less prolific, with a meagre seven concerto scores surviving. Vivaldi was clearly a strong influence, with a striking introduction to the G minor concerto leading to a rhapsodic solo response. Podger’s sweet tone also contained a good deal of warmth and she played the audience beautifully too, a sudden look of surprise as the florid slow movement took an unexpected turn seeming to say: “I bet you didn’t anticipate that!” 

The most unusual number of the evening was Telemann’s concerto for four violins, as Telemann dispenses with the orchestra and continuo ensemble entirely. Podger was joined by Truscott, Kati Debretzeni and Margaret Faultless (all OAE co-leaders) on a raised platform at the rear of the stage for this quirky piece. With four equal violin voices, Telemann hands the melody line seamlessly from one instrument to the other. The jog-trot finale had the suggestion of the hunt about it, though it ends abruptly, the hunters – perhaps – outfoxed.

However much I adore Vivaldi, this concert confirmed Bach’s status as The Godfather of Baroque, topping and tailing the evening, with a meaty filling in between. Podger, face wreathed in smiles, allowed the E minor concerto to unfold naturally, with the lightest bowing and an unflamboyant manner. In the Double Violin Concerto, Truscott’s sound was softer, gentler than Podger’s brighter tone, but the two complemented each other in the idyllic second movement. If these concerti were impeccably well-behaved – arguably too polite – it was Podger’s profoundly moving solo Chaconne after the interval which knocked the stuffing out of me. She has such a phenomenal grasp of the movement’s architecture that it all suddenly made perfect sense. Alone on the platform, Podger’s playing completely entranced. It was almost sacrilegious to break the spell with applause.