Like many arts institutions, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is hell-bent on broadening its audience base.
Unlike some, however, they have negotiated the fine line between elitism and condescension with exemplary skill.
They promote their work with stimulating themes, late night concerts and, most importantly, through thrilling performance. Their programmes, too, are thoughtful and inventive, like this one, Adventures in German Music 1711-1740, which focussed on the synthesis of French and Italian styles in early eighteenth-century Germany.
Telemann’s Overture in E minor from his first Tafelmusik production provided a gentle introduction to the evening. Thought to have been composed as background music for a banquet setting, its soundscape is soft and unobtrusive, with flutes at the fore, but characterised by twirling French mannerisms. With Vivaldi’s Concerto for 2 violins, 2 oboes and bassoon in D major, in an arrangement attributed to the German violinist Johann Georg Pisendel, the orchestral texture changed dramatically, and shimmered with a bright and sprightly contribution from the two oboists.
Jan Dismas Zelenka, an eccentric double-bass player at the Dresden court, doesn’t exactly spring to mind when you think of German baroquers, but his Hipocondrie, possibly the first movement of an unfinished suite, was a quirky addition. No such programme would be complete, however, without Bach, and in his Concerto in D major for 3 violins a piece devoted to stringed instruments (if the harpsichord may be so categorised) we were treated to thrilling ensemble-playing, with virtuosic phrases rippling through the three soloists.
Central to the programme were two contrasting cantatas sung by Rachel Nicholls. Bach’s enduringly popular Cantata No.51 Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, frames its contemplative inner sections with wild exuberance: the opening soprano part is showy and operatic, and Nicholls, shadowed exquisitely by David Blackadder on the natural trumpet, lent it a rich but steely brilliance.
Telemann’s lesser-known Cantata Ertrage nur das Joch der Mngel from the Harmonische Gottesdienst made the Bach look dangerously hedonistic. This piece is more than a memento mori, it is a graphic and damning description of the hellfire and brimstone that will punish earth’s sinners, and the score is suitably grim. In the recitative section, as in the quieter moments of the previous cantata, Nicholls conveyed an air of studied introspection, but in the final, angry aria, sang of the flame “that sizzles through the blood of the veins” with malevolent relish.
Intentionally, or otherwise, the programme offered different sections of the orchestra the chance to shine. Throughout, however, the ensemble as a whole was never less than engaging. Under the charismatic direction of violinist Rachel Podger, whose joyfulness and unfettered enthusiasm radiated from the stage, the OAE gave a performance of fine quality, but more than that, one that was hugely entertaining too.