Those happy to brand the British Isles as the "land without music" for the time between Purcell and Britten might have cause to rethink if they audited the vintage of London of the late 1760s. Johann Christian Bach, the youngest of Johann Sebastian's sons, moved to England in 1765, helped along by the expatriated Carl Friedrich Abel, with whom he shared a house on Meard Street in Soho. After Bach's arrival, the pair embarked upon 'The Bach-Abel Concert Series', which lasted over twenty-five years, and established them both as major figures on the London scene. They were not without indigenous colleagues. A 'true' Londoner, Thomas Arne, secured operatic success by writing in the fashionable, Italian mode of 'opera seria', whilst also setting texts in the vernacular, which resonated with national concerns and interests. As such, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's enterprising programme, '1700s London and the Fab Four', collected various works by these Kleinmeister, rounded off (rather than outclassed) by one of Haydn's middle symphonies.

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, © Eric Richmond
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment,
© Eric Richmond

The opening symphony by the young Bach was taken from his first collection of such works, written some time before 1769. This is music that takes itself to its logical – and often eccentric – conclusions. Whilst his father may have tailored the end of a sequence or progression to avoid any particular awkwardness, J.C. Bach cultivated more angular results, akin to some of the writing of his older brothers, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann. And to this end, this performance was a little safe. Although it played on the drama effectively and brought much light and shade to the score, there was more to be relished in the more piquant corners.

Joining the OAE for two arias (one in either half) was soprano Rachel Nicholls. Her first aria, 'Frena le belle lagrime' ('Stop, oh stop the starting tears'), was one of Abel's contributions to a pasticcio, Sifari. A pasticcio was originally an experimental dish of left-overs created by enterprising chefs in sixteenth-century Italy. The musical equivalent is a similar compositional mishmash, with contributions – both original and copied – from various sources. Abel was himself a virtuoso player of the viola de gamba (a fretted predecessor of the cello) and included a sumptuous solo introduction for the instrument, prefiguring the tender and melancholy affect of the text. And it would be hard to imagine a more beautiful or sensitive rendition than that given by Jonathan Manson, whose sound captivated, and whose honest intensity humbled.

But if the limelight was rightly shared in Nicholls' first aria, Thomas Arne's 'The soldier tir'd of wars alarms' from his 1767 opera Artaxerxes, bathed her in the warmest glow. From her assured and humorous stance, through the technical wizardry of lengthy coloratura lines, to the comical introduction and interplay with trumpeter David Blackadder (who made a quasi-cameo appearance) Nicholls captivated and charmed the audience.

The weak link of the programme was J.C. Bach's Sextet in C. The scoring is essentially for a distilled orchestra, although it can equally be seen as a trio sonata (in this case, featuring the oboe) with the addition of a pair of horns. Either way, however, it results in an unattractively heterogeneous texture that never quite finds it feet, jumping from underpowered keyboard concerto to symphonic hunting finale, slurring in the intimacy of chamber music.

The other offering from Abel was one of his accompanied violin sonatas, delivered by the evening's guest leader Rachel Podger, Manson, and the OAE's co-principal keyboardist Steven Devine. Here was exemplary chamber music making, each player leading the others through a radiant and pretty work. The first movement's characterisation was acute, with Manson's more sorrowful line always lifted back by Podger's higher and lighter part. There is no doubt that this is music worthy of further exploration, in no small part thanks to such a persuasive performance.

And, by way of contextualising or ratifying the quality of the late 1760s, a turbulent account of Haydn's forty-ninth symphony, La Passione, was included as a type of check and balance. Written in 1768 for performance on Good Friday, it is a work marked with solemnity, cast as a sonata da chiesa ('church sonata') in four movements, alternating slow with fast. Its minor mood offers little relief, save a brief flirtation with the major in the third movement; contrasts were instead found in the OAE's detailing: insistent syncopations, haunting colours, and nuanced wind playing.

Not only was this programme satisfying, however, for its musicological interest: it was also satisfying for its well-judged accessibility: the programme notes were written in an appealing manner that neither strayed into irksome colloquialism nor alienated the reader with jargon; a glossary of any technical terms used was appended to the notes themselves (rather than condemned to the back pages); and the concert was sandwiched between a pre-concert talk and a 'meet the artists' drink in the bar afterwards. A complete concert experience.

****1