sun 25/02/2024

Bach Brandenburg Concertos, OAE, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester | reviews, news & interviews

Bach Brandenburg Concertos, OAE, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Bach Brandenburg Concertos, OAE, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

An evening of sheer enlightenment

Players from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Enlightenment is a wonderful idea, and the members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment who played Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall last night brought the wisdom of today’s period instrument movement to bear on music that most would see as belonging to the age of the pre-Enlightenment.

Present-day enlightenment lies not just in historical accuracy, however, but also – from an audience point of view – in catching the spirit of its original creators.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment do that extremely well. The expertise of their techniques is unexceptionable, and even without violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk, who was to have taken a leading role in most of the concertos, the integration and balance of their one-to-a-part ensemble playing was well-nigh perfect. Huw Daniel – playing violin piccolo in the first concerto – stepped up to the plate to take on the other violin leading, too.

Steven Devine"Authentic" performance canons have not changed that much in recent times, at least in some quarters. I remember the sense of discovery in hearing these pieces played by The Hanover Band, around 30 years ago, with similar approaches – and the realisation that in Baroque instrumentation all participants are pretty well equal in weight of tone, variety coming essentially from contrasts of colour. Even the high notes of the natural trumpet are little more dominant than the treble recorder or oboe, as the virtuoso-lipped David Blackadder and his colleagues proved in the second concerto (which was played last in this concert) – though he did turn to project across the platform rather than straight down the centre of the hall.

Perhaps we are more enlightened now in our appreciation of the structural make-up of Bach’s movements: here there was no slamming on of the brakes to mark a double barline or emphasise a return to the home key, but rather a subtle drawing of a boundary, or a careful burgeoning of volume. Dynamics were not unvaried, by any means: even if Bach didn’t write the word crescendo, there are plenty of opportunities for creating the effect in his writing, and they were taken. Ornamentation was discreet, but often ingeniously present to enhance a melodious line.

The concert began with the first concerto, in which the horns brought an open-air atmosphere (perhaps as if heard coming from outdoors on a country estate) with their cross-rhythms in the opening movement. They were expertly played, and there was a very lively speed for the third movement (the first to be marked as Allegro). The polonaise section in the Menuet was a real let-your-hair-down moment, as if the wild men were taking over, if only briefly.

Katherine SpreckelsenThe civilised string dialogues of the third concerto followed, with the cello lines delightfully articulated and the players’ enthusiasm creating what looked from the auditorium almost like a series of Mexican waves as the motives passed down the line. Harpsichordist Steven Devine (pictured above right) gave the tiny Adagio cadence just enough individuality and not too much, and the audience was thrilled by the speed of the final Allegro – though maybe that was just a bit too much of a rush to let every detail speak in this reverberant acoustic.

Devine had his starring moment in the fifth concerto – no doubting the skill in his fingers there – though he took the chance of introducing rubato to such extent that it seemed almost out of character with the rest of the first movement. There was lovely playing from Lisa Beznosiuk (flute) and Huw Daniel in the Affetuoso movement, and a very spritely jig.

After the break the players resumed with concerto no. 4 (strings plus two recorders), with apt variations of dynamic in the first movement and giving Daniel the chance to demonstrate his skill in bariolage in the Presto. The sixth concerto, featuring violas, viole da gamba and the unusual small violone, was quietly beautiful, and its jig a more decorous affair this time.

They saved the second concerto for last, bringing on the trumpet for its exciting effect and giving the golden tones of oboist Katharina Spreckelsen (pictured above left by Eric Richmond) another spot in the limelight – all the solo roles were elegant in the slow movement, and the finale was jolly and confident enough to go for a near-throwaway ending.

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters