wed 24/07/2024

BBC Proms live online: Benedetti, OAE, Cohen review – double helpings of Baroque zest | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms live online: Benedetti, OAE, Cohen review – double helpings of Baroque zest

BBC Proms live online: Benedetti, OAE, Cohen review – double helpings of Baroque zest

A spirited and sensitive trip through an interconnected Europe

A partnership of equals: Nicola Benedetti and Kati DebretzeniAll images Chris Christodoulou/BBC

In a year of absences and separations, here was another one we had to bear.

Built around a programme of Baroque double concertos, last night’s Prom should have brought Nicola Benedetti and Alina Ibragimova together in a violin super-duo that promised marvels. In the event, a family bereavement kept Ibragimova away from the audience-free Royal Albert Hall. Yet, and again in the phoenix-from-the-ashes spirit of the arts in 2020, the improvised solution proved an uplifting delight. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which backed the soloists, has always sounded like a band of stars. Its leading violinists stepped up to partner Benedetti in a suite of works that filled the empty hall with the verve, dash and brio of this pulse-quickening repertoire – even if there was little they could do to fill the emotional void left by the missing audience. 

The lights in the vast hall twinkled like the aftermath of an end-of-season disco while, necessarily apart, the standing players of the OAE kept their distance, nervous wallflowers at a teenage hop. Directing from the harpsichord, Jonathan Cohen still ensured that his scattered forces stayed tight and focused, abetted at every turn by a polite but formidable powerhouse of a rhythm section – and special plaudits for David Miller, on theorbo for the Northern European works but guitar when we moved to Venice. We began in that city, with Vivaldi’s D minor Concerto for Two Violins. As foil to Benedetti, Rudolfo Richter seemed happy to adopt more of a sheet-anchor role, although the score – in common with the other  pieces chosen – gives plenty of star turns to each solo voice. In her introduction to the broadcast, Danielle de Niese had made much of the “theatricality” of Baroque performance. However, last night’s soloists sounded, to my ears anyway, more measured and modest than many of the period-instrument barnstormers who have mainstreamed this music over the past few decades. Nothing wrong with that, when technique and taste remained so polished: the fiddlers’ tender to-and-fro of trills in the adagio was a delight, while the finale allowed the zesty swing and crunch of the OAE’s ensemble sound to come into its own.

Solo voices took a breather for Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op. 3 No. 2, with Cohen as lord of the dances, coaxing a broad palette of colours and textures from the OAE.  Katharina Spreckelsen’s plangent solo oboe break hinted at glories to come. Hosted by De Niese, the linking TV commentaries stressed the brilliant artistry of the women musicians directed by Vivaldi at La Pietà in Venice; their successors did him proud in his D major Double Concerto. Here, OAE leader Kati Debretzeni made a sparkling interlocutor for Benedetti, in no sense a second fiddle but an acrobatic virtuoso in her own right. I had expected more of a contrast between Benedetti’s tone – given her background in the High Romantic fiddle repertoire – and the timbre of the OAE specialists. But Benedetti proved a team player to her fingertips, crisp and fierce in her attack but with deep reserves of lyricism to mine when – and only when – the music warranted. As it did in the wistful journey the two soloists undertake in the adagio. The Benedetti-Debretzeni conversazione sounded so absorbing that you felt a beautiful normality had descended on the Hall. Then it all abruptly ended: the soloists mimed a hug, the band offered a faint smatter of claps, and the dismal reality of an empty space and a broken culture returned. 

As an orchestral interlude, the mighty Passacaglia from Handel’s opera Radamisto lent Cohen and his forces another chance to showcase their strength in depth. Here the physical separation mandated by the rules turned out to be a blessing of sorts, as the spacious grandeur of the descending figures gave each instrumental voice a chance to shine in its splendid isolation. But close-quarters dialogue mattered vitally in the Vivaldi A minor Concerto for Two Oboes that followed, and the soloists – Katharina Spreckelsen and Sarah Humphrys (pictured above with Nicola Benedetti and Kati Debretzeni) – talked (or rather sung) together with winning intimacy. I had feared that the bittersweet delicacy of the Baroque oboe might disappear into the vacant cavern of the Hall. But the pair drew on strength as well as subtlety, with an intertwined beauty of line that made the lilting largo a magical suspension of space and time. 

Down-to-earth music-making, robust but elegant, returned with a rarity: the Newcastle-based composer Charles Avison’s Concerto Grosso in D minor, based on three sonatas of Scarlatti, from 1744. This was a spirited, even flamboyant, reminder of the sophistication of musical culture on the Georgian Tyne, as in other provincial centres of 18th-century England. De Niese’s comments, by the way, alluded more than once to the depth and breadth of musical contact between England and Continental Europe in the Baroque era. Did I sense a Brexit subtext? In today’s heavily-policed BBC, we have to learn to read between the lines. 

We ended on the glorious sunlit uplands of Bach’s Double Concerto in D minor (the signature key for the entire evening, so it felt). Matthew Truscott joined Benedetti in a lithe, sinuous and well-shaped performance – less of the “theatrical” romp and stomp we had been led to expect, maybe, but a smooth and refined journey through this most Italianate of Bach’s masterworks. Once again, the slow middle proved an utter treat. Benedetti and Truscott respected the qualification of the largo markings, “ma non tanto”, and never dawdled. Their soaring dialogue had mature suavity rather than cloying sweetness, with a slow-burn warmth enhanced by Benedetti’s touch of barely-there vibrato. Then the duo raced to the finish-line, whipped on merrily by the OAE. The orchestra said their farewells with an audience-picked encore: the rondeau from Purcell’s Abdelazer

It rounded off a programme that lacked nothing either in ensemble pulse and drive, or in the expressive flights of solo strings and wind, but which still felt a bit bereft. The ability of fast-moving, light-footed period groups and soloists to forge bonds of excitement with audiences has helped rescue this music both from the dead hand of the academy, and the stifling embrace of 19th-century travesties. So the bleak silence at the close spoke chillingly of what we lack.

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