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When the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was at Nottingham's Royal Concert Hall two years ago, playing all six of J S Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, the slow movement of No 5, for just the three soloists, produced an extraordinary moment of intense audience concentration.
Well, it happened again this time, in the Double of the Polonaise from his orchestral Suite No 2 - just the solo flute with cello and harpsichord continuo. Again there was an almost tangible sense of listeners on the edge of their seats. But alongside the hushed intensity there was sheer exuberant fun. With the extra pizazz that often comes when an orchestra's wind and upper string players stand to perform, as they did for most of the evening, all four of Bach's orchestral suites got performances you felt you could actually dance to, full of foot-tapping rhythmic energy that was pretty well irresistible - Nottingham, UK, 16 May 2019.
With violinist Margaret Faultless directing, they started with Suite No 3, in all its trumpet-and-drum magnificence. The stately opening to the Ouverture gave way to quicker music that just bubbled with life. The well-known Air was wonderfully serene, but with a firm rhythmic foundation, some attractive decorative flourishes adding to the appeal. An incisive account of the first Gavotte really kicked up its heels. I'm not sure if you actually do that while dancing a gavotte, but this one did. Gavotte No 2's opening unison was robust and fiery. The orchestra went straight into the final Gigue from the Bourrée, which helped keep the energy levels high.
After that, principal violist Max Mandel came forward for an affable spoken introduction. Giving us a bit of insight as to how OAE rehearsals work, he asked for a show of hands on the chosen tempo for the Air - too slow? too fast? just right? Most, including me, found it just right.
The more intimate Suite No 1 has no trumpets or timpani, but it does give the oboes more prominent roles, together with a bassoon, adding, in this performance, a tanginess to the sound in movements such as the second Gavotte. The first Gavotte was nice and light on its feet, the repeat followed by an enjoyably springy Forlane. The pair of Minuets was suavely elegant, the two Bourrées full of driving energy. Again, there was no break before the concluding Passepieds. The three wind players had moments in the spotlight in the second dance of each pair; the quiet clacking of their keys somehow only added to the sense of a shared experience.
No 2, scored for just flute, strings and continuo, half-suite, half-concerto, and the most intimate of all, opened the second half. Especially in this one-player-per-part performance it offered the maximum contrast with Suite No 4, which ended the evening. As mentioned above, it kept a particularly intense hold on the audience's attention, as if we were privileged to eavesdrop on a group of friends, with flautist Lisa Beznosiuk very definitely first among equals. A bubbly pair of Bourrées was followed by an alert Polonaise and Double, and a gracious Menuet. As before, there was no break between this and a dazzlingly nimble Badinerie.
The Fourth Suite, for which the strings were seated, is the most resplendent of the lot, adding a third oboe and a bassoon to No 3's line-up. From the Ouverture's glorious opening sunburst, the players went into what folk dancers and musicians would recognise as a slip-jig, which seemed to just dance for the sheer joy of it. A particular delight, here and elsewhere, was the focused tuning of Adrian Bending's timpani. The wind instruments relished their share of the spotlight in the second Bourrée, with their deliciously piquant timbres, while the darker colour of the strings-only second Minuet made a telling contrast with its brighter-toned companion. The concluding Réjouissance brought the whole experience together in a finale brimming with sheer exuberance.
Copyright © 27 May 2019