City Recital Hall, Sydney
November 13, 2017

Darkness and light sat side by side when British period ensemble The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment came to Sydney’s City Recital Hall, presenting – with the help of guest director, long-time OAE collaborator and Queen of Baroque Violin Rachel Podger – two symphonies in minor keys paired with two concertos in major keys. Bringing OAE to Australia has been a long-term dream of Musica Viva’s Artistic Director Carl Vine – the exercise was deemed too expensive when he took the reins of the organisation 17 years ago – but it has now been possible thanks in large part to financial support from patrons through MVA’s Amadeus Society. It has also been a long time since Australian audiences have heard Podger in person – the performances on this tour are her first in Australia this millennium.

Rachel Podger and the Orchestra of the Age of EnlightenmentRachel Podger and The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Adelaide. Photo © Shane Reid

Haydn’s Symphony No 26, Lamentatione, – a tumultuous Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) symphony – takes themes from the chants of a medieval Passion Play as material for its first and second movements and OAE channelled this drama as they hit the opening with a bold, energised sound, tearing period horns and full-bodied gut strings laying into the Allegro assai con spirito. Bright oboes provided flickers of colour, while the strings sighed and the violins raced up and down their range. The stately pace of the Adagio seemed to lean forward, propelled by the bass as Podger and the violins glided gently above, the horns finally adding their mournful timbre. Tempest returned in the final movement – the Menuet weighty and powerful while the Trio saw delicate tracery framed by the hard slap of gut-string accents.

Johann Christian Bach brought the Sturm in the second half, with Johann Sebastian’s youngest son’s Symphony in G Minor, Op. 6 No 6. But after the drama of the opening, the Allegro first movement settled into something more easy-going and elegant, the OAE musicians nonetheless producing a rich depth of sound. The strings danced in the tiptoeing second movement, which trod a fine line between sombre brooding and an almost comic lightness. The finale simmered, the ensemble tight and electric before the piece ended in a sudden fade-out.

It was Podger who brought the light, with vibrant, sunny performances of Mozart’s First Violin Concerto, K207 – from 1773 – and the last Violin Concerto he ever wrote, K219, written two years later when the composer was 19 years old.

Podger has an incredibly warm, charismatic stage-presence and a natural, organic rapport with the OAE musicians. She played along with the tutti opening of the First Concerto with bright energy before unleashing a golden tone in the solos, her ornaments snappy and playful. She brought clean lines and articulately shaped phrases to the first movement, her notes unfurling magically in the second before the gleeful Presto had her racing up and down her instrument.

While Mozart’s First Violin Concerto is a star vehicle, his Fifth and final offering in that genre sees a more complex conversation develop between soloist and orchestra. Podger danced with the violins in the first movement, her playing expressive and tone shining in the high register before duetting with the lush accompaniment of the second movement, the orchestral sound spun through with oboes and horns. Podger practically shimmied to a descending figure in the strings and brought a sparky virtuosity to the finale. If the (very) occasional note slid wayward intonation-wise – an ever-present danger with gut strings – the performances were driven by such verve and joy it didn’t matter.

Podger’s playing was infused with personality, and no more so than in her cadenzas. She brought a unique personality to each, from sublime, ethereal double-stopping to cheeky rubato, tossing fragments of music out from the stage then looking up with a playful smile as if to see if the audience caught them. But every note she played was infused with love, and the way she whole-heartedly immersed herself in the ensemble – whether turning to take in an oboe duet before her solo or following a melody as it jumped from the second violins to the firsts – made this concert an absolute pleasure from start to finish and well worth the wait.

Rachel Podger and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, touring for Musica Viva Australia, will perform in Canberra on November 16, Melbourne on November 18, Brisbane on November 19 and Perth on November 21.