A giant projection of a 30th birthday cake with a picture of St George’s on it took over the whole screen on the back wall of the stage over a green and gold harpsichord. The projection was swiftly replaced by a real cake presented on stage with lit candles to announce the 30th birthdays of both St George’s as a concert venue and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. For their anniversary concert, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment programmed a selection of works for the harpsichord from the different sons and father of the Bach family led by British harpsichordist Laurence Cummings, who performed no fewer than two Harpsichord concertos, two sinfonias and three encores, without tiring.

Laurence Cummings © Robert Workman
Laurence Cummings
© Robert Workman

The programme gave an interesting insight into the differences between the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and his sons. The highlight of the evening was Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in F minor. The driving rhythms of the music and overflowing contrapuntal melodies were gripping and exciting. The climactic point in the Prestissimo final movement left a feeling of awe about Cummings’ dexterity and power on the harpsichord. It was much more romantic thanhis father’s Harpsichord Concerto in D minor BWV 1052 which was stripped back to a single string instrument on each part as that, Cummings explained, was how it would have originally been played by Bach and his sons. The nature of the instruments being solo fought against the sound of the harpsichord, which didn’t happen in the fuller WF Bach Concerto in F minor with more players.

JS Bach’s treatment of the harpsichord was more of a continuo part where the overlaying melodies had been stripped back where, WF Bach’s concerto was much more classical in style, highlighting the instrument and giving Cummings a real chance to perform. Cummings is cheery and positive to watch on stage. He has a way of engaging the listener with his body language. The nature of his conducting as well as playing meant that his physical language led the piece and so he became the central visual focus. The musical ability of the OAE made it very easy to enjoy these details about the orchestration and styles. Cummings' part in both concertos was almost continual with just a handful of pauses. He was buoyant and even bouncing off his chair for the final piece, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Sinfonia in B Minor Wq182/5. Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach’s Sinfonia in D minor Wfvl/3 felt too weak, too close in sound to the final CPE Bach sinfonia of the evening.

The evening culminated in a series of celebratory encores. The first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 in G major was the highlight, seemingly selected by the audience in an online poll, it had a great reception and was played immaculately. A quirky version of happy birthday, cunningly mish-mashed into some famous classical pieces arranged by Annette Isserlis in the 1980s was also performed. If that had been the only encore it would have sufficed in its cheery comedy. It was light-hearted and witty in large contrast to the following song from Handel’s Semele, “Where’er you walk”, a welcome surprise gift featuring Cummings as vocal soloist. It is rare to see such musically diverse talent on stage, from playing the harpsichord to conducting and singing, in one concert, but a real anniversary gift for St George’s.