Much in the manner of a vacation home-exchange, the artistic directors of the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Cambridge-based Academy of Ancient Music have recently guest-led the other ensemble. Comparable in size, the two orchestras nevertheless differ in their repertoire concentrations: the British group tends to focus on 18th century music, whereas the ACO has a broader remit. It was perhaps inevitable that when fronted by the AAM’s Richard Egarr for their ‘Golden Age’ tour, the ACO should have offered works of the Baroque and Classical eras. Neither repertory is unfamiliar to the ACO, although their programmes more typically would pair this music with 20th century fare. Nonetheless there was no lack of variety and interest in what was programmed last night: it featured music from England and Austria/Germany written over a 150-year span, and encompassed concertos, operatic excerpts, symphonies and adapted viol-consort music.

Richard Egarr © Marco Borggreve
Richard Egarr
© Marco Borggreve

Typically the ACO is led by Richard Tognetti from the concert-master position, but this time the direction was provided by the other Richard from keyboards: harpsichord in the first half, and fortepiano in the second. Despite mostly having his back to the audience, Egarr conveyed a strong sense of leadership to the viewer as well as to the players: at times raising a hand from the manuals to shape a phrase, at others communicating via energetic head bobbing and facial expressions. His facility as a communicator was also apparent from his relaxed and engaging introductions to various pieces.

The pot-pourri of instrumental numbers and adaptations from Purcell’s Fairy Queen which opened the concert was inventively assembled, balancing contrasting emotions and unfolding a logical progression of keys. The performance captured the bucolic jauntiness of the “Dance of the Haymakers” as easily as the wonderfully subdued “See, even Night herself is here”, where the melody was delectably shaped by oboist Shefali Pryor against a delicate membrane of string sound. The tuning slipped a little by the end (despite a mid-medley retune), though without disastrous consequences.

The second piece dipped back into the first half of the 17th century, with Lawes Fantasy arranged for two opposing trios of violin, viola and cello. Egarr amusingly described this as “the sort of music Charles II hated” (Purcell being exemplary of what he liked), but perhaps oversold the idea of struggle by talking about a “battle” between the two groups: it was a very decorous combat if so. The players responded well to the challenges of playing this early repertoire, with the absence of vibrato lending a quasi-Baroque astringency to the sound. Visually, the sight of the cellists standing stork-like on one leg with their instruments propped on chairs was unforgettable.

The solo in Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor was taken by Satu Vänskä. She is a player in quite a different mould to Tognetti: deliberately understated, very unshowy. For me, this reticence was taken too far, so that at times in the second movement her sound barely penetrated above the ripieno (main body of the orchestra), who were certainly not unsympathetic in their accompaniment.

The second half was devoted entirely to Haydn, and contained some of the most electrifying music-making in the programme. For the D major Keyboard Concerto, Egarr’s fortepiano was turned side-on, a pardonable anachronism (to my knowledge, it was Liszt some 50 years later who first customarily put the piano in this orientation). What was notable was the amount of improvisation the performance contained: aside from the ‘normal’ cadenza point towards the end of the first movement, Egarr included frequent embellishments of pause-chords, and most daringly of all, a link between the first and second movements.

The second movement exemplified the sensitivity of the orchestra to the fortepiano’s limitations of tone – Egarr had demonstrated beforehand how soft the muted setting was (when his description of “inserting the brass knob” reduced the cellists to helpless giggles), but his sound was never covered. Even in his solo cadenza he toyed imaginatively with the limits of audibility. In the final movement, the tempo was allowed to fluctuate considerably in certain sections, which made this Hungarian-influenced music sound like a pre-echo of Liszt at one point.

The Trauersinfonie (no. 44) is one of Haydn’s very few minor key symphonies, but has been overshadowed by the next one in his catalogue, the Farewell (no. 45). It is a daring work: Egarr compared it to the music of Adès and Boulez, and hoped that we would feel “battered” by the end. The players certainly delivered with gusto the energy-filled outer movements, where even the quieter parts sounded like they were awaiting imminent discharge. As encore, we were treated to the finale of Mozart Symphony no. 33 in B flat, which was equally driven but more in the vein of an opera buffa finale, ensuring that we finished with a smile on our faces.