We all know the one about the tree in the forest. But what about the orchestra in an empty hall? Do they still create a performance if there’s no one there to see them?
We’re only a few concerts into this year’s live Proms, filmed in a cavernous Royal Albert Hall with no audience allowed, and it’s proving to be an unexpectedly revealing experiment.
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s programme of 18th-century concertos might just be the most interesting yet. Period ensembles with their softer-edged sound and subtler range of colours traditionally struggle in this space – forced either to push to reach the back or risk playing to half the half the hall. With that pressure removed, what we heard here was intimate almost to the point of introversion, chamber music as a shared secret or joke among friends rather than a public speech.
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Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti may have been the headliner, but what was striking was the musical democracy, the shared, shifting spotlight that roams across the whole orchestra in concertos by Vivaldi and Handel, now pulling two delicate oboes and their hearty bassoon chaperone forwards into the spotlight, now the athletic cellos or the solo violins – first among equals.
With the second advertised soloist Alina Ibragimova forced to withdraw before the performance, her role in these musical duels and duets was instead taken by three different violinists from the orchestra. It only added to the sense of camaraderie, to the stakes of music that lives in the edge-of-the-seat, anything-you-can-do rivalry of its twin solo parts.
Benedetti is a responsive and generous performer, reinventing herself here in her different partnerships: elegant and poised with Rodolfo Richter in Vivaldi’s sunny D major Concerto for Two Violins, butterfly-light in the D Minor double concerto, flickering in and among Kati Debretzeni’s solo line in a shadow-play of imitation. But it was Bach’s Double Violin Concerto that was most striking: Benedetti and Matthew Truscott rejecting anachronistic swell and surge, carving sterner shapes out of music whose architecture needs no gilding or embellishment.
Directed from the harpsichord by Jonathan Cohen, the orchestra were all style and control. Just occasionally among so much tastefulness it would have been nice to hear a little more release – the guttural Italianate rough-and-tumble that jostles through music built around shared conversation and cooperation, but also urgent, ebullient rivalry.