Visiting orchestras have been flying in thick and fast as the Proms whistles and crashes itself towards the Last Night. Hot on the heels of major traditional orchestras from Oslo, Amsterdam and Stockholm came a somewhat different beast, the Freiburger Barockorchester. It’s a comparatively young band, celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year, and with its Baroque inclinations and musical inquisitiveness, the FBO produces a sound well worth hearing, the tuning up alone showing a fastidious approach rarely seen in London.

Pablo Heras-Casado
© Fernando Sancho

Taking to the stage to conduct a decadent programme devoted to Mendelssohn was Pablo Heras-Casado who led the ensemble with a consistently sophisticated vision. The central piece was the Reformation Symphony, Symphony No. 5 in D major, Mendelssohn’s symphonic encapsulation of the Protestant Reformation. Written in 1830 for the Augsburg Festival (he missed the deadline and it didn’t get performed), it was a work he came to reject and it’s never really found a place in the popular mainstream. Listen to Parsifal though and you’ll hear echoes of the symphony; both Mendelssohn and Wagner were inspired by the “Dresden amen”, a six-note motive used in churches throughout Saxony in the 19th century. Under Heras-Casado’s baton-less direction, the trombones announced the theme in a light and graceful way; assertive, but not aggressively so. Heras-Casado’s interpretation was not without force; the first movement brisk in places with tempi that had real impetus behind them. Horn playing was as tart as a hedgerow blackberry, a swirl of colour and texture that metamorphosed into golden silk in the second movement joining warm woodwind, impeccable in delivery. Heras-Casado seemed to avoid diving into full-blown Romanticism though, restraining the playing for all its colour with a little touch of Protestant austerity that was only mild subverted in the brief Andante, which throbbed with yearning. A strong flute solo playing a theme from Luther’s “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” was the highlight of a finale which was thoughtfully delineated

The first reference to the Reformation symphony comes from a letter Mendelssohn wrote during his spell in Britain, a time which inspired, amongst other compositions, his overture The Hebrides. Heras-Casado opened the concert with an expansive reading of this popular work, gently moulding phrases and teasing out detail; with gravelly double bass playing and a pellucid and thoughtful clarinet solo the highlight of a performance that prized small variations in dynamics over a bold scope.

Isabelle Faust is among the most famous of the Freiburgers’ regular collaborators and the Violin Concerto in E minor is a work they have performed together before. Faust’s interpretation was technically brilliant, dispatching the trickier sections with apparent ease, but her introversion was quite remarkable, the reading in the first two movements seemingly devoid of great emotion. Even her posture, right up until the finale, was rigid and unbending. Faust was collegiate in approach: there was no showmanship, no attempt to bedazzle over the orchestra, rather a controlled approach to tutti moments that enabled her tone to blend with the orchestra, still cutting through the light burbling of the woodwind, but exploring the detail and fabric of the whole score rather than just her own instrument. A meditatively played encore of an arrangement for violin and orchestra of Wagner’s “Träume” from the Wesendonck Lieder was both an original choice and a delightfully relevant one, given the connection between the two in the symphony. A highly successful visit.