What a lovely way to round off a weekend, with some feel-good favourites from one of the world’s finest early music ensembles. Currently in their silver jubilee season, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra actually began to emerge a couple of years earlier than their official 1987 launch. Several students from the College of Music in Freiburg, fortified and inspired by glasses of New Year sparkling wine, had decided to form a group to research, experiment and play on Baroque instruments. Their mission after all this time remains focused on bringing a freshness to their performance, as though the ink had scarcely dried on the manuscript paper. They generally work without a conductor, following the 18th-century custom of concertmaster directorship, which was the case tonight with this intimate band of fifteen string players.

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra © Marco Borggreve
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
© Marco Borggreve

It was a cleverly constructed programme, with suitably elaborate variation in the number of violins in starring roles in the Bach concertos, and Vivaldi kicking off each half with somewhat more democratic pieces. If I’m not mistaken, Vivaldi rounded off the concert too, with an unannounced encore that boasted solo lines for no fewer than four violins. It was an unusual treat to hear opera music from Vivaldi, and his overture to L’Olimpiade got the performance underway in dramatic fashion, with a bombardment of repeated notes, descending phrases and spiky broken chords. The feeling of forward momentum in the music was mirrored by the stance of the players, swaying and bending into the phrases.

There was a pleasing balance between the solo instrument, played by Petra Müllejans, and the orchestra in Bach’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor. While Bach was director of music at the ducal court of Weimar, he gathered inspiration from the likes of Vivaldi, and the Allegro has plenty of evidence of the “ritornello” form – a main section that comes back in fragments in both the solo violin and orchestral parts – gleaned from the concertos of his Italian contemporaries. The measured Andante was very moving, with an expressive lament-like solo above the harpsichord’s “ostinato” bass line.

The slower movement within Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D minor was also a delight. Müllejans was joined by fellow concertmaster Gottfried von der Goltz for a feast of counterpoint, and in this Largo ma non tanto (Broadly but not too much) section they entwined musically in a lilting “Siciliano” dance, the orchestra circling subtly in the background. Lovely warm tones and seamlessness of conversation led eventually to an energetic Allegro, its foot-tapping quality clearly tickling the cellists.

Back to Vivaldi for one of his later offerings, the Sinfonia for Strings in A major. Pieces of this type were also known as “Concertos a quattro”, referring to the four sections of a string orchestra, as they were written for an ensemble of musicians of relatively modest ability (such as may have been found at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, where he was violin teacher, then musical director, for so many years), without a separate solo part. However, there’s plenty of contrast within the short piece, the big, bold opening giving way to the gentle poise of the Andante molto, and increasingly adventurous development in the finale. The players oozed a sense of joy and triumph on a tide of perpetual motion.

Bach’s Violin Concerto no. 2 in E major is an attention-grabber from the off, with its dramatic three-note figure which returns again and again – definitely one to hum on the way home! Vivaldi-esque in texture and structure, there is however a break with convention in the soloist’s sneaking into the opening orchestral “ritornello”. Following a poignant minor cadenza by von der Goltz, there was a collective holding of breaths during an eloquent pause, before the full company once again tumbled into the original theme.

The final official number on the programme was a fine advert for live music, in the sense that as well as the immediacy of the aural experience, there’s so much to be gained from the unfolding visuals of the work. It was fascinating to watch the apparent ease with which the lines passed around the trio in Bach’s Concerto for Three Violins in D major, Müllejans and von der Goltz joined now by Beatrix Hülsemann. Each soloist also had their extended moment in the spotlight, and certainly all three put on a dazzling display. But most touching was a lovely moment when the outer soloists turned to the flanking groups of their colleagues to bring them into the picture – a sound picture of sensitive teamwork.

***11