Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Rachel Podger
City Recital Hall
13 November 2017
The repertoire spanned no more than a decade and a half, from c 1760 to 1775, yet the music expressed sentiments from elation to lamentation and showcased expert interpretation of the Classical style when the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) performed in Sydney for Musica Viva.
For this long overdue debut tour of Australia, the ensemble of 19 directed by solo violinist Rachel Podger and led by Rodolfo Richter, travelled with just four pieces – two symphonies in minor keys by J Haydn and J C Bach and two violin concerti in major keys by W A Mozart. Founded by the players in London in 1986, the OAE is self‐governing, uses period instruments with gut strings and has no permanent conductor although it has worked with a string of luminaries like Gustav Leonhardt, Sir Charles Mackerras and Sir Simon Rattle.
The orchestra takes its name from the “Age of Enlightenment” a movement in 18th-century which was aimed to change and elevate thinking by challenging superstition and inherited beliefs, placing education and self-improvement above preoccupation with the supernatural.
To feature the works of Mozart and Haydn on this inaugural tour made eminent sense. Both composers were freemasons and believed in the masonic ideals of universal brotherhood and the liberating power of knowledge. Forming an intimate near-circle, for the two symphonies, the OAE confirmed its credentials as one of the world’s leading Classical period ensembles. Podger herself performs on a Pesarinius violin of 1739. Both she and the ensemble paid meticulous and regular attention to tuning in response to the vicissitudes of travelling with and playing on gut-stringed wooden instruments.
The curtain-raiser, Haydn’s Symphony No 26 in D minor, ‘Lamentatione’ was played with a superlative sense of cohesion punctuated by some especially beautiful interjections from the two horns and two oboes. A hypnotic Adagio followed the opening Allegro assai con spirito which indeed lived up to its description, closing with the Menuet and Trio – its rhythms driven by passages of lively acciaccatura alternating with sections of deep lyricism.
Podger shone in the virtuosic style galant of the Violin Concerto No 1 in B flat major, K 207 by W A Mozart. The second movement Adagio was a perfect vehicle for Podger’s sweeping lines, sensitive phrasing and consistent beauty of tone which contrasted with her jaunty Presto of the third movement.
One of the images associated with enlightened thought was that of the sun piercing the clouds of superstition and fear. J C Bach’s Symphony in G minor, opus 6 no 6, interrupted the luminous essence of the programme thus far, looking back to the Sturm und Drung of pre-Enlightenment anxieties with the musicians creating a mood of restlessness and angst. The middle movement, Andante piu tosto adagio was given a truly supernatural flavour.
Finally, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No 5 in A major, K 219 ‘Turkish’ written when he was just 19 – a piece in which the soloist is more at one with the ensemble but where Podger held on to our attention with dazzling cadenzas and consistent sweetness and clarity of tone. The concerto culminates in a grand Orientalist inspired final movement Rondeau, the full ensemble emerging with an abundantly rich and powerful sound.
No concert by the OAE would be complete without an encore and for this Podger and her band returned for W A Mozart’s Rondo in C major K 373, the Rondo form being an excellent choice to present a variety of moods and perfection in technique.
Rachel Podger is a brilliant musician, an engaging and gracious performer who infuses her performances with subtle humour. There is tremendous chemistry between her and her talented ensemble. This tour was a gift of programming and performance. To hear the distinctive sound of the OAE in vivo and to witness how they work together was a revelation – complementary as ripieno instruments in the concerti and full-blooded in the symphonies. We look forward to a return tour.
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with Rachel Podger performs in Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Canberra on selected dates until November 21.