This small, conductor-less orchestra with the long name — Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) — delivered what was unquestionably one of the CAMA International Series season’s most thrilling performances at the Granada on February 13. Led from the concertmaster’s chair by Michael Gurevich and joined in the second half by violinist Nicola Benedetti, the OAE performed a pair of works by Beethoven, the Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60 and the Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61, both from 1806.
The practice of playing on period-specific instruments continues to outpace any attempt to confine it within a set of rigid expectations, and the OAE exemplifies this protean tendency. In the Symphony No. 4, the orchestra followed the vigorous body language of Gurevich at a quick tempo with strong accents. Relatively light instrumentation lent focus to the brilliant structure of this most underappreciated of Beethoven’s symphonies.
Benedetti’s lively elegance of tone was a perfect match for the group and for the Concerto in D Major, surely one of the finest concertos in the repertoire. A swift, dynamic approach to the opening movement led to the highlight of the evening, a dazzling new cadenza duet between violin and timpani. Benedetti and OAE principal timpanist Adrian Bending traded phrases back and forth while the orchestra was silent in a composition on which the violinist collaborated with composer Petr Limonov especially for this tour. It’s based on transcription made during Beethoven’s lifetime that arranged the concerto for piano, rather than violin. Limonov and Benedetti took the piano-timpani cadenza from that manuscript and recomposed it to suit both the violin and Bending’s unusual period instrument, the Schnellar timpani. The result was a fascinating interlude in what is otherwise a familiar piece. Raw, rhythmic, and searching, the passage leapt from its context as though some long-hidden force embedded in Beethoven’s music were only now being released. The new Benedetti-Limonov cadenza may not be for everyone, but to these ears it fairly sizzled. Multiple standing ovations later, the violinist obliged the rapt audience with a short encore, but the memory that lingered most was of the dialogue between her violin and Bending’s drums.