Can you imagine being a concertgoer in the early years of the 18th century, when Corelli, Vivaldi, Bach and Handel were all writing new music and performers were being pushed to find new ways of playing? It must have been exciting to experience what are now considered masterpieces with a pioneering spirit; not knowing what to expect. In 2014, of course, the repertoire is established and the material well understood, so it takes special effort from performing ensembles to exploit the full potential of the score and engender in its audience some sense of novel wonder.

Matthew Truscott © Joe Plommer
Matthew Truscott
© Joe Plommer

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment achieved that high bar in the opening item – Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in D no. 1. The full set of Concerti Grossi Op.6 is a cornerstone of the form and stands up as perhaps the most consistently excellent of the period. The OAE could have chosen any one of them and most audiences would be delighted. The first concerto is a proud, stately piece which vacillates between Largo and Allegro. It does so by employing miniature transitions of the kind we associate with Rameau; only these are entirely congruous and do not shock the arc of the music. The OAE was totally in control of this and most other aspects of the form. In particular, the harpshichordist was perfectly in time as he spread ponderous arpeggios across the majority of the cadences. Matthew Truscott led his colleagues in the violin section through the simple passages of held chord progressions, while the fast fretwork required of the first cello was dispatched with precision. The ensemble’s attention to dynamics and shape were absolutely first rate; we expect this of the OAE but that doesn’t make it unremarkable.

Vivaldi’s Sinfonia in B minor followed in an equally sensitive rendering, although the piece’s austere melancholia toned down the ensemble’s exuberance. Were we to be listening to the Sinfonia without knowledge of the programme, no one would have guessed the music was written by Vivaldi – its spacious harmony, played straight and true by the strings, called to mind the modes of earlier liturgical music, and set the mood nicely for the item that followed.

Sally Beamish’s Spinal Chords appeared through segue from the back end of the Sinfonia. It was a nice idea to segue from one century and into another very different one, and indeed the two items were similar enough for the trick not to jar... to begin with at least. After a series of repeated chords, the music began to play second (and third) fiddle to words written by Melanie Reid, which were read out by Beamish herself. Reid’s poem reports the traumatic experience of spinal injury in the first person. It is sad and it is emotional and it is compelling. All of which makes it difficult for a reviewer to write anything other than praise, but it should be said that Reid’s style of writing it not for everyone. The words were well read by Beamish, who delivered the conversational and very personalised vocabulary of Reid’s work carefully. The OAE approached its role with perhaps a little too much caution, swelling only for brief moments and generally soundtracking in a conventional manner.

The programme returned to the Baroque with Bach’s exquisite Violin Concerto in A minor. It differs from Corelli’s style of concerto in that it follows the more formal approach developed by Venetian composers from the period, most notably Vivaldi. In this concerto, Bach blurs the roles of soloist and accompaniment enough to allow each element integral melodic impetus. Even so, the OAE ensured that the tune was always highlighted and only the greatest corners of the counterpoint stood out against the overall theme. Much as with the earlier Corelli, it was a refined but enthusiastic rendering of the music and I couldn’t help but marvel at the intellectual energy of the composition and its electrifying effect on the players.

This was an excellent concert that was bold in its inclusion of the Beamish and brilliant in its showcasing of such bright lovable music. The OAE continues to play with the kind of attention to detail that demands the material be wondered at. Despite there being few shocks in terms of tempi, or phrasing, or balance, it appears to explore the music in new ways with each show. There is a lot to this, and I’m sure it is not easy, but for as long as this orchestra makes this its business, I will keep attending.