The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment takes a broad view of the musical territory open to period instrument ensembles, and why not indeed? However, an evening of all late 19th Romantic fare? I was intrigued. This was the last of three concerts of the same programme in a week: Basingstoke, New York and then London - not an obvious touring circuit! The concert is also the last of their 'Flying the Flag' series, curated by principal flautist Lisa Beznosiuk and principal double bass Chi-chi Nwanoku, and this concert, 'Best of Both', looked at the composer's reflection of their own and other national characteristics in their music.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment © Richard Haughton
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
© Richard Haughton

They began with the Overture from Smetana's The Bartered Bride. This is clearly core territory for Hungarian conductor Ádám Fischer, who conducted without a score (as he did with the Dvořák later). After the opening flourish, the second violins nailed their terrifyingly exposed passage of pianissimo semiquavers, and the subsequent string entries had real bite and energy. By this point, Fischer was almost dancing as he carried the players through this joyful curtain raiser. Once or twice, the dynamics needed a little control, as the softer period flutes struggled to be heard over the strings, but the OAE showed that their pared back sound in no way lacked energy and spirit.

Viktoria Mullova then joined the OAE on stage for Brahms' Violin Concerto. This wasn't the most accurate performance of the Brahms I have heard, with some slight issues in detail from both soloist and orchestra, but nevertheless the approach of performing on earlier instruments brought some interesting and unexpected insights. Unfortunately, Mullova never quite looked entirely at ease, although perhaps the transatlantic hopping of the preceding few days had taken its toll. Also, I have no problem per se with soloists having music on stage as long as it doesn't get in the way of communication. Unfortunately, once or twice, Mullova did appear rather focused on the score. The first movement was reserved, although there was sensitive dynamic contrasting from Mullova. Occasional tentativeness of attack meant that some of the double stopping was not 100% secure, and the cadenza felt strangely understated.

In the second movement, the wind and horns' fragility gave proceedings an edge of tension, and this was matched by shaky vibrato from Mullova. However, the pianissimo close to the movement was beautifully controlled. The finale was the strongest movement here, and it felt like soloist and players alike finally relaxed a little, enjoying the dance. Here, Fischer's inflection of the slightest lift before the final downbeat of the theme added appropriate spice, and Mullova played with great panache.

Once again Fischer abandoned use of a score for the Dvořák symphony. Cellos and violas gave the first movement's opening theme strong character, and this set up is important, as the theme returns throughout the work. In the following wind passage, tuning was a slight issue, but the horn fanfare was fresh and bright. Also, now with greater dynamic control, the flutes were able to demonstrate real delicacy in their solo playing. Fischer enjoyed facilitating the tit-for-tat interjections from the violins before the recapitulation, and the trumpets were unashamedly brash and shiny. All of this demonstrates just how fresh the different sounds of the period instruments can be, and in fact how this can really point out different perspectives in such familiar music.

In the second movement, the same player doubled the oboe and cor anglais parts, and whilst the big tune on the latter instrument had real delicacy and tenderness, there were a few tuning and accuracy issues in the oboe part. However, once again the benefits of the period instrument approach outweighed some of the technical difficulties, with much of the overemotional nostalgia that we're used to here being stripped away, adding greater poignancy. The delicate dying away of the muted horns, and then the reduction of string forces down to front desk violins and violas, and then ultimately to solo violin at the close of the movement, were highly touching.

Fischer pointed the Scherzo entries with real energy, and the rhythms felt new and edgy. Here, Fischer and the OAE used the dry acoustic and their own drier sound to great advantage, and the contrast with the rustic dancing Trio section was refreshing. By the end of the movement, Fischer was playing with the violins, looking almost shocked by their mischievous interjections. The finale again had great energy, with some particularly bright and piquant playing from the brass.

So in performances not without problems, the OAE and Fischer nevertheless brought freshness and new perspectives to familiar repertoire. A modern instrument performance might bring greater security but the price is often a lack of individuality and spirit. The danger of familiar music washing over the listener was challenged as we were brought up short and forced to listen to the music in a new way – surely the aim of a good live performance.