The Orchestra of the Age of the Englightenment are taking the concert which they describe as “the best of both worlds, old and new”, from Hampshire to New York and back to London in a week. While the orchestra makes the literal journey, audiences on both side of the pond are treated to an extraordinary musical journey through staple Romantic and late Romantic works. Russian violinist Viktoria Mullova, renowned for her technical wizardry, brought straight-laced brilliance to Brahms’ Violin Concerto, while conductor Ádám Fischer shaped and moulded a memorable Dvořák “New World” Symphony.

Viktoria Mullova © Alessandro Marcotulli
Viktoria Mullova
© Alessandro Marcotulli

The OAE’s sound is distinctive due to its period instruments, which create a gutsier texture than you might have come to expect from this concerto. Mullova’s bright, tight timbre was an immediate contrast, creating a beguiling tension that arguably added rather than detracted from the overall sound. The Adagio was spellbinding, with characteristically controlled lyricism from the soloist and similarly restrained beauty from the orchestra.

With her austere, poised manner, Mullova was anything but a gushing performer of this archetypal Romantic music, yet she was magnetic to watch. Her stage presence seemed to intimidate even her conductor. This was not a faultless performance; Mullova seemed to be trying to push the tempo beyond Fischer’s moderate pace from early in the first movement (Allegro non troppo), and struck one or two off-pitch notes over the course of the work. But overall it was an authoritative, assertive interpretation, with Mullova dazzling in the double and multiple-stopping fireworks and stunning snippets of melody which pepper the violin solo part – especially a snappy final Allegro giocoso. Her cadenza was oddly muted in expression but still drawn-out and technically impressive, and it grew beautifully towards its end. This was a serious approach to a serious concerto, with Mullova firmly in charge.

What a change then in the second half, when the OAE appeared liberated. Late-romantic Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony no.9 in E minor, thought by some to express a longing for his Czech homeland while living in America, was a parade of colour. The orchestra demonstrated its ability able to accelerate quickly from a whisper to a roar and back again. Sitting near the front of a relatively cosy venue, the impact was pleasantly exhausting.

Fischer started it off at an understated slow tempo, expressive but tentative. Dvořák’s writing is busy with themes and variations on themes, which come back to haunt us like memories refusing to fade. The moods though, change quickly; the ominous start gives way to a hopeful flute melody in the first movement, and there are similar shades of light and dark throughout the four movements of this E minor Symphony. There’s a sense of yearning that doesn’t need to be pinned to one country, place or person to affect the listener deeply. It all culminates in an unrelenting, anguished final movement. The ending is less of a slow burning climax than a series of climaxes which burn themselves out and collapse in a heap of delirium. Here the conductor inspired his orchestra to go bigger for each big chord, creating a series of life affirming statements for a symphony that is unconventional but still so accessible.

The audience seemed enraptured (and a pretty full audience it was – programmes had sold out by the time I arrived) as well they might. The performance was shaped to bring out every corner of the work in unhurried style, while keeping the dynamic and rhythm contrasts extreme. I do wonder whether the strong impact I felt at the front would have been passed on to the back of the hall; those listening live on Radio 3 may have an opinion about whether the raw emotion passed onto the airwaves.

I’ve so far neglected to mention the opening piece, the Overture to the opera “The Bartered Bride”, from the pen of Dvořák’s fellow Czech composer Smetana. That’s not because it wasn’t a more than adequate performance, but because it was swept away by the two succeeding works. The orchestra achieved an effective contrast between energised, furtive semiquavers and the gentler bucolic woodwind tune – the rough-edged cellos stood out in the former. A shame to lose this work among two other giants of the concert-hall repertoire, but not a tragedy; the others were rich gifts indeed.