OAE/Wallfisch, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Amid the relentless tawdry consumerism that now stands for Christmas, the odd nugget of gold can still be found. A packed Queen Elizabeth Hall was warmly appreciative of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The concert, billed as celebrating Christmas Baroque-style, had, in fact, no dedicated "Christmassy" works. Instead, the director for the evening, the violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch, led the OAE in a German first half featuring the voice, and an Italianate second half featuring instruments only.

Amid the relentless tawdry consumerism that now stands for Christmas, the odd nugget of gold can still be found. A packed Queen Elizabeth Hall was warmly appreciative of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The concert, billed as celebrating Christmas Baroque-style, had, in fact, no dedicated "Christmassy" works. Instead, the director for the evening, the violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch, led the OAE in a German first half featuring the voice, and an Italianate second half featuring instruments only.

Passacaille by Johann Christoph Bach was a delightful opener for soprano and strings (plus a huge lute and harpsichord continuo), hinting at eroticism - "He nurtures me, shields me, makes love to me..." - with its gently lilting ground bass. Lisa Milne relished the German words with an intimate style of communication, becoming increasingly passionate. She was marvellously supported by, among others, three violas in their warmly rich middle register.

Heinrich von Biber has been having a good anniversary year, and to allow Milne a breather, his Die Bauern-Kirchfahrt ("The Peasants Go to Church"), a sonata billed as " à six", but in fact for many more, demonstrated how "programme" music (in this case, "getting out of bed" music, "getting ready for church" music, "chattering and laughing" music) has been with us long before 19th-century Romanticism "owned" it. In this sectional work, the strangest moment was passages of bare, utterly simple scalic music, played in octave unison: wonderfully weird but typical of Biber's eccentric writing.

J S Bach's Wedding Cantata also vividly depicts the words set. In the opening aria, the words, "Retreat, gloomy shadows, Frost and winds, go to rest!", are marvellously underlined by rising and unfolding arpeggios with unexpected harmonic twists. And with, "Nothing but joy and happiness", the mood shifts palpably. This cantata includes four arias, each with a different obbligato instrument. In the first, the oboist Anthony Robson produced the reediest of soulful sound; in the second, the cellist Jonathan Cohen was exemplary with his galloping semiquavers evoking "swift steeds".

In the third, Wallfisch gave a lesson in how to invigorate (apparently) straightforward music by varying shapes and colours, and in the fourth, the oboe returned in a delightful precursor to a Viennese waltz. Once again,Milne was ardent, relishing the words and coping splendidly with Bach's taxing instrumental writing for voice.

After the interval, in Handel's Op 3 No 2, Cohen again stood out for his fluency and musicianship, while the lutenist Elizabeth Kenny was delightful in Vivaldi's concerto RV93. And Wallfisch had a ball in Vivaldi's "Winter" from The Four Seasons. It's show-off stuff, and how they all enjoyed playing it.

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