Free of pretence and rich in verve, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment more than lived up to its reputation whilst in Melbourne last Tuesday. Fresh from concerts in Sydney and Adelaide as part of a national Musica Viva tour, the musicians were joined by fellow English violinist “the Queen of the baroque violin” Rachel Podger as concertmaster and soloist. The OAE is quite a remarkable beast amongst larger chamber ensembles, having forged its own brave and leaderless path since inception three decades ago. Eschewing a regular artistic director or conductor the OAE has made some brilliant collaborative choices over the years – Sir Simon Rattle had a hand early on in their history. A merry band, with a sort of English directness, the high-calibre string playing was flanked by a calorific horn and woodwind section in Tuesday’s outing.
Podger’s sunny disposition and warm daring had the audience chuckling along with her at times. Her playing is ever conversational, coquettish even, and I have no doubt that she raised the collective happiness of the 1000 or so concert-goers through sheer energising wit.
Haydn’s Symphony in D minor, nicknamed “Lamentatione” opened the concert and immediately the orchestra’s experience paid off. In a space as “live” as the MRC’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall it was great to hear none of the dreaded lag from the cello/bass section. I’ve also not heard a more solid horn section, this one was spectacular in the turn to D major in the opening 1st movement Allegro assai con spirito. Ever the creative risk-taker, Haydn finishes the work with a fairly simple Minuet and Trio, with the OAE bringing out the Sturm und Drang elements of the writing to great theatrical effect.
A pairing of Mozart Violin Concerti, one at the end of each half, proved delicious programming for Podger and the OAE, and practical too since it is so costly to tour orchestras, and this choice of repertoire meant value for touring dollar. Mozart’s 1773 concerto in B flat major allowed not just the soloist but the orchestra also to revel in the many opportunities for chamber music making within a rambunctious collective spirit. The OAE provided a solid rhythmic bedrock upon which Podger could work her magic. As a performer she appears totally at ease – gracious and direct. A wink here and a coy look there, Podger’s charm lies in her natural, almost invisible virtuosity. Of real delight was her cantilena playing in the second movement Adagio, pure and ringing.
As in the Haydn Symphony, Podger led Johann Christian Bach’s G minor Symphony from the Concertmaster position, her back largely to the audience in constant engagement with the players. OAE were authoritative particularly in the 1st movement Allegro which really challenged the second violins with some relentless semiquaver scrubbing. An unashamedly abrupt ending to the movement set the tone for the rest of the symphony with its straddling of baroque and classical style.
Mozart’s more popular “Turkish” Violin Concerto in A major from 1775 rounded out the night on a musical high. Podger has the knack of knowing when to take the music seriously and then effortlessly sells us the seismic shift back to playfulness again. Her own cadenza pulled out all the stops in terms of soloistic bonhomie, and was enlightening with some beautifully judged rhetorical affects. The final movement Rondo was a real highlight as the strings indulged in keen percussive bow slapping, a little musical elbow nudging and much mirth. The encore of Mozart’s Rondo in C K.373 was more than welcomed by the sell-out crowd. I hope to see the OAE again on these shores.