From the moment it was advertised this concert was unmissable: Instruments of Time and Truth with its chief conductor, Edward Higginbottom, and Bojan Cicic, a lively and passionate performer who is also now Professor of Baroque Violin at the Royal College of Music – and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. The advertised programme was intriguing. What would IT&T, best known for their expert focus on Baroque music, do with Mendelssohn and Haydn?
The answer became clear when they began with the Hebrides Overture. Although it is such a familiar piece, I have never heard it before played on gut strings, with period woodwind and brass. Although the latter were evolving throughout the nineteenth century, these are the instruments that were still largely in use when Mendelssohn wrote what he originally called The Lonely Island and these were surely the sounds he could expect his score to produce. The resulting soundscape was remarkable both for its clarity and for its evocation of sea and storm, and the shifting waves and weather. The Overture was revealed as a milestone on the Road to Romanticism and the huge popularity of programme music that was to follow in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The Violin Concerto was next on the bill. From the start it was intensely alive. In the achingly beautiful slow movement, Cicic moved between solitude, dialogue and tension with the orchestra, arriving at a peaceful conclusion only to launch into the sparkle and virtuosity of the final movements. It is always astonishing to hear a violin solo holding its own with a whole orchestra playing: to achieve this on an instrument from the 1680’s with such a pure and delicate sound was extraordinary. Since this version of the Concerto was completed more than ten years after the Hebrides Overture it gave us a glimpse of Mendelssohn’s own development towards Romanticism while still deeply embedded in Classical form.
Finally there was a Haydn Symphony, No. 93 in D – the first of his symphonies written for London in 1791. The string players changed from their Classical to their Baroque bows, producing a lighter sound. The orchestra gathered, standing, around Higginbottom, giving the whole piece a sense of dance as their bodies shifted to accommodate their instruments. It, too, while going back behind Mendelssohn gave us a sense of milestone: Classical in its form and proportions the symphony is full of imagination and dramatic surprises – Haydn at his trickster best.
The transition from Baroque through Classical to Romantic music is fascinating, and I came away feeling that as well as having had a great musical experience, I had also understood something more about that journey.
Now embarking on their fourth season, Instruments of Time and Truth are expanding their activities in Oxford; see their website www.timeandtruth.co.uk. On current showing, early booking is to be recommended.