Refined yet insipid

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment & Rachel Podger

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday November 14 and Saturday November 18

 

 

This democratically operating band has achieved a high reputation in the ranks of period performance if mainly, it seems to me, through the undisguised puffery of British critics and music writers.   Much has been made of the ensemble’s improbable survival, endless self-examination, penchant for various guest directors (albeit ones with top-notch reputations) and catholicity of style.   Not much of this made any difference to Tuesday’s first Melbourne concert from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment which, fronted by guest violinist Podger, performed two symphonies – Haydn’s Lamentatione No. 26 in D minor and J.C. Bach’s G minor Op. 6 No. 6 – and the bookends of Mozart’s violin concerto output: all four compositions written within a decade of each other and coming from a cosy trio of mutually admiring master-writers.

An Australian composer once asked me to make no comparisons between his work and that of other composers whenever I reviewed his work and, although it’s a difficult omission to endure, I’ve tried to keep to it, apart from harmless generalizations that seem unarguable.  The temptation to compare ensembles and orchestras is more difficult to carry out, even on the local scene; performance differences between the Goldner, Flinders and Australian String Quartets are there to be noted, I suppose, but seem to recede in importance when you consider each group’s specific interpretative powers on a particular occasion.

But I couldn’t help thinking of the Australian Chamber Orchestra while listening to the OAE.   The points of difference are clear; Richard Tognetti doesn’t go in for the real period touches, usually because he presents programs more historically diffuse than this one from Tuesday and what’s good for your Bach is not necessarily worth persevering with in your Bartok.   For all their historical exactitude, the British players worked with a kind of diffidence, a temperamental restraint that might have been in operation during the second half of the 18th century – who can tell? – but which resulted in some passages of tedium.  While the ACO takes up every challenge with overt enthusiasm – everything becomes vital, if not confrontational – these Musica Viva guests kept themselves nice, observing a calm style of presentation which often proved admirable if also distancing.

Podger and her supporters were frugal with vibrato, but you’d be unwise to cavil at this practice because it speaks to a lucidity and freshness of texture that you can hardly hope to reach if you let your left hand wobble on the spot at every opportunity.  As a corollary, your intonation has to be spot-on because every note in a sequence takes on a quality tantamount to musical nudity; there is no leeway, no place to hide if you miscalculate. While the Enlightened outlined the Haydn symphony with a discipline of emotional content, you missed decisiveness from the string body, especially the bass elements which throughout the program showed a spread of focus, as though the absence of a conductor’s decisive beat meant that the bottom line could indulge in a bit of a spread.

This lack of bite showed up all the more sharply because the body’s pairs of oboes and horns took on extraordinary prominence, simply as timbre contributors even at obvious moments like bar 58 of the central Adagio where they set the running for the movement’s second half.  In fact, the strings’ delivery during the latter two movements showed more authority than had been obvious in the opening Allegro assai where the occasional intonative crack emerged from the violins.

You never hear the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 1, violinists opting for the melodic eloquence of the final three in the set, more often than not No. 5 which Podger also performed to wind up the night.  To a certain degree, this violinist’s historically obedient use of gut strings only gave her reading an unstressed edge, the violin line primus inter pares; nevertheless, the lack of steel in timbre, coupled with  the sparing vibrato made each deviation evident and small slips emerged even as early as the soloist’s first exposure. More than the preceding symphony, this score made for involving music-making, although I have to admit that interest levels drooped during the three cadenzas.  Also, this was the only part of the night where the horns – well, one of them – dropped a note; when I think of the error-laden experiences endured at the hands of local period instrument players . . .

The Bach symphony produced the program’s most lively engagement in its outer Allegro movements but the central Andante was something of a trial. At two points for strings alone, the players appeared to concentrate on generating a continuously static communal output, situations where the work’s forward motion stopped, as though the participants were putting their trust in the composer’s orchestration colours to generate attention – which is fine when you have actual colours to deal with.

The one unalloyed high-point of the evening came in the Mozart A Major Violin Concerto’s adagio.  Yes, the music itself is some streets ahead of anything else this concert offered, but it also suited the soloist’s mellow sound flavour in the middle of the composer’s eloquent orchestra loaded with refined detail at every corner.  Again, Podger gave vent to her ability to insert substantial cadenzas; I must admit to wishing for something a tad less prolix by the time the rondeau had reached the usual spot for an interpolation; after all, you don’t have to play a cadenza, particularly in this movement which has enough internal interest to keep you on the qui vive.

The forces at work for this concert made an interesting study.  With Podger at first desk for the symphonies, the first violins numbered five, the seconds four; three violas, two cellos and one double-bass completed the group.   As well as the horn and oboe pairs, the bass line boasted Sally Jackson’s bassoon which I was hard pressed to discern anywhere during the program.  Perhaps the lack of drive from the upper strings was due to half their number not appearing on the body’s current playing list.  With the ACO, you get the occasional ring-in but most of the time each face is a very familiar one; the which faces will become more familiar to London audiences when Tognetti and his people take up their position for a three-year term as an International Associate ensemble at the Barbican during the 2018/19 season, bringing novelties like steel strings and, more importantly, biting unanimity of attack and a fusion of intellectual and emotional rigour to the London chamber orchestral scene.

Still, it was certainly entertaining being in attendance – with a highly enthusiastic audience – on this night where the OAE indulged us with some enjoyable pages of refined, delectable doodling.