It was not the first, but it has survived. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was founded in 1986, a creation of the Thatcher era when the idea of performing music on period instruments was taking off, and it has outlasted almost all of its counterparts from that heady time in the UK.
What a busy weekend it has had. The players just had time to fit in this 21st birthday concert on Saturday before hastening back to Glyndebourne, where the OAE is now one of the two resident orchestras, for the opening night of a fully staged production of Bach’s St Matthew Passion.
At times it felt as though they would not make it. The birthday celebrations dragged on and on, overrunning the scheduled finishing time by almost an hour and a half. Everybody wanted to have a turn – five conductors and 10 soloists, not to mention the occasional festive chorus from the Choir of the Enlightenment. The most familiar performers, though, were soon the stagehands who spent wearying quarter hours between each item re-arranging the music stands. It was one of those evenings.
The best came at the end. Mark Elder, who has done so much of his finest work with the OAE, conducted a hair-raising account of the black magic finale to Act Two of Weber’s Der Freischütz and Charles Mackerras rounded the evening off with the pomp of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. We did not have the nine horns, nine trumpets and 24 oboes that Handel prescribed, but even with less than that it was quite a noise.
Among the other highlights were a lively suite from Rameau’s Dardanus under Roger Norrington, the playful spontaneity of Richard Egarr and Robert Levin in Mozart’s Concerto in E flat for two pianos, and a sleek performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 63, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, which was the one item that sounded really well rehearsed.
Perhaps the last word should go to one of the children featured in video clips throughout the evening. “If they could do a Jurassic Park with DNA in the future,” suggested one boy, “we could bring back genuine period musicians.” A brilliant idea – but somehow I do not think the Musicians’ Union would buy it. ★★★★☆
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