The Café Zimmerman of Bach's Leipzig saw the first performances of some of the first concertos written for harpsichord. We imagine a general clamour, trade fair merchants gathered around coffee-stained tables, all straining to hear the music of the genius Cantor from the local Thomaskirche. One of Bach's sons may have played the harpsichord parts, if not J.S. himself, though it is evident is that they were written for someone with a virtuoso technique. Tonight's performance from the Salzburg Camerata and Angela Hewitt captured the splendour of Bach's harpsichord concertos, as well as the likely dynamism of those first performances, with playing that was full of hustle and bustle.  

Angela Hewitt © Bernd Eberle
Angela Hewitt
© Bernd Eberle

That Bach was a musician of eminent practicality was made clear with tonight's inclusion of the Concerto no. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052 and the Concerto no. 3 in D major, BWV 1054. Both pieces are transcriptions of violin concertos, and here Bach shows that he was prepared to freely adapt his material. Modern musicians are equally free in the ways they interpret this material, and whilst Ton Koopman's visit to the Teatro Fraschini last month demonstrated the wonders of Bach on original instruments, tonight's concert presented another way. The players' approach felt at times romantic, at others modern, and they worked together to create music with a thrilling quality. 

Tonight's performances were full of dynamic shifts and charismatic phrasing, which was perfect for heightening the contrasts at the heart of these ritornello form works. In the opening "Allegro" of Concerto no. 3, a silvery sheen from backing violins would emerge from nowhere and burst into flames around the next corner. Shards of melody jumped out of the texture, and each caught our attention with its individual character. This busy texture was bound together with Hewitt's silky semiquavers, which were always full of shape.

Hewitt was musically and technically sublime in the solo sections, and the music felt malleable in her hands. In melodic and homophonic sections alike, she conjured new colours and moods with a feeling of spontaneity. Each phrase took us on a journey: after dirge-like orchestral introduction in the "Adagio" of the Concerto no. 3, she entered with a high trill that provided the energy for the remainder of a long phrase which dipped, rose and wound around the underlying chaconne. Hewitt's love for this music was discernible in her playing, as it was in her entire demeanour as she swayed, gesticulated, and fanned a playful grin to the audience at the movements' cadences.

But outside the solo sections, Hewitt sat back and slotted into an ensemble that worked as a dynamic and all-moving whole. Clusters of musicians nestled at the centre of the stage with Hewitt in the middle, who played from an iPad to bypass the visual obstruction a full score might pose. Eye contact was high, and the group bantered with an exchange of musical fragments as if in a 15-man game of ping-pong. This had the effect of placing a spotlight on choice features of Bach's score, which was most gratifyingly achieved in the "Allegro" of the Brandenburg Concerto no. 5, where the eye flitted from interweaving solo flute and violin to cellos with bold pizzicato.

Worlds apart from those interpretations that leave Bach's expressivity to speak for itself, tonight's approach provided a complementary carapace that navigated us through Bach's score in unexpected ways. The process was evident even in the darker Concerto no. 1, where a less cluttered texture leaves a clear distinction between piano and accompaniment. Hewitt played the first movement's pained arpeggios with heart-crushing intensity, and the orchestra, usually dainty in the background, crashed through and captured our attention whenever possible. Hewitt spun introspective arabesques in the second movement, with the orchestra sighing and bulging underneath. 

Hewitt and the Salzburg Camerata seem made for each other, with playing brimming with a mutual spirit of adventure. The forces reunite for July's Trasimeno Festival, Hewitt's music festival set in picturesque rural Umbria, where they are billed to perform this programme alongside another of Bach Harpsichord concertos. Based on tonight's performance, both of these promise to be brilliant concerts.