As gin is inextricably linked to tonic, so is Frans Brüggen associated with the orchestra he founded, the Orchestra of the 18th Century. Since his death earlier this year, his replacement has not yet been found. Instead the orchestra has decided to continue its regular five projects a year, inviting guest conductors and soloists. Last night the orchestra was under the baton of Kenneth Montgomery and was joined by pianist Finghin Collins and mezzo-soprano Rosanne Van Sandwijk.

Kenneth Montgomery © Marco Borggreve
Kenneth Montgomery
© Marco Borggreve

True to its name, the programming for last night’s concert stayed mainly within the 18th century parameter apart from Field’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in E flat major which was published in 1814. It also eschewed the usual format of introductory piece followed by piano concerto and ending with a symphony in favour of a more 18th century approach: two soloists with a selection of smaller-scale works on offer. There was an interesting circularity to the first and last pieces. Both Haydn’s Symphony no. 99 in E flat and Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks contain a London connection; the former was written on his return to the English capital while the latter was commissioned by King George II.

If Montgomery entered the auditorium looking somewhat frail, this was not evidenced in his conducting. Right from the dramatic opening of the first movement, Montgomery crafted a nuanced sound from the period instrument orchestra. And if the horn interjections in the Allegro section were a little rough, the strings demonstrated some delightful coquettish playing in the exposition and revelling in the humour of the key changes of the development section. The expressive slow movement is thought to have been written as a tribute to wife of Prince Esterházy's physician and the orchestra imbued each phrase with deep sentiment. The woodwind shaped the melody at the opening with great delicacy while in the stormier middle section the strings throbbed with passion. Humour was always to the fore in the Minuet and Trio with sharp sforzandi and swift key transitions. The finale burst forth in mischievous delight, energised by the two exhilarating themes. Slight mistakes from the clarinet did nothing to mar an overall fine performance.

Irish pianist Finghin Collins performed the Piano Concerto no. 1 of fellow countryman, John Field. An elegant 1822 Broadway piano was wheeled on stage which had been fully restored in 2011. I was struck by two things: there was a lack of depth to the keyboard resulting in a very light touch; this in turn meant that we had to readjust our ears from the fulsome volume of the orchestra to the dainty sound of the soloist. Despite such drawbacks, Collins energised the orchestra convincing them with his vision of the piece. We were treated to sparkling filigree and deft phrasing, as Collins captured the mood of each movement perfectly. While undoubtedly this was a fascinating insight into how music would have sounded back then, there were times when I wished Collins was performing on a modern piano, creating a full-bodied ff sound unlike the meagre forte that emerged from the Broadway. The whimsical moments of the second movement were convincingly evoked while the third movement started off in fine rustic style before some engaging dialogue between orchestra and piano.

The concert aria “Ch’io mi scordi de te?” by Mozart gave an interesting chance for Collins to team up with mezzo-soprano Rosanne van Sandwijk with orchestral accompaniment as well. Sandwijk possesses a fine, expressive voice which filled the entire concert hall. There was deep tragedy in every syllable of “O duol funesto” (O fatal sorrow) while the descending scales on “Stelle barbare, stelle spietate” (Barbarous stars, cruel stars) were imbued with great intensity. Collins impressed too, always listening out to Sandwijk and never overpowering her with his glistening runs of the obbligato part. I could highlight other moments of sheer beauty but the melismas at the end were magical.

Post-interval Sandwijk sang the aria “Scherza Infida” from Handel's opera Ariodante. This is a deeply intimate aria where Ariodante is willing to take his own life on account of his bethrothed’s alleged infidelity. What impressed me so much with Sandwijk’s interpretation was its utterly convincing simplicity, each word speaking to the heart. There was infinite sorrow in the opening words “Scherza infida” while the menace that Ariodante would return to haunt her had a delicate ethereal quality that seemed to hover in the air.

Vim and verve characterised Montgomery’s vision for Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. The Overture had suitable pomp and vibrant interjections from the brass fanfares. At times there were tuning issues for the brass and the woodwind in certain movements of this suite, but nonetheless the celebratory tone coupled with vigorous playing brought the concert to a rousing finish.