Late in the day it certainly was - a good 20 minutes past ten at the first euphoric exhalation of Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust and close to midnight by the ecstatic, incendiary climax of Dopo notte, atra e funeste - but charisma, invention, precision, originality, daring and beauty finally convened in Prom 70 at the Royal Albert Hall this Wednesday night. Moments like this - so far from the standard stylistic models of historically informed performance practice and so uninhibited, naked and intimate as to be untranslatable to the purely aural medium of radio, I fear - are what make this gargantuan, often tiresomely uneven festival an imperative still. If this year's Proms have brought more than a modicum of musical mediocrity to attention over the past eight weeks, too much Tchaikovsky, a baffling amount of bad Brahms and a cluster of indefensibly under-rehearsed concertos, the experience of seeing Anne Sofie von Otter, Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre bend Bach, Rameau and Handel like Miles Davis or Bill Evans is more than enough to compensate for a hundred such evenings.
Regular readers will be familiar with the 400 year-old Florentine formula of nobilità, sprezzatura and grazie. They may even recall my invoking it in reviews of Simon Keenlyside, Angelika Kirchschlager, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and other singers. But none of these modern-day Orpheuses has, I think, developed a relationship with their accompanists, singular or orchestral, quite like that between von Otter, Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre; a relationship so tight and so technically assured (that's the nobilità part) that when a singer takes flight (that's sprezzatura), 40 players respond with the fluency, spontaneity and ease of a jazz trio. If Christine Brewer, Mark Wigglesworth and the London Philharmonic shrank the Royal Albert Hall to the size of the Wigmore a fortnight ago in Berg's Sieben frühe Lieder, von Otter, Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre turned it into a smoky, film noir, torch-song dive of the kind that probably ceased to exist in the mid 1950s. Tribal taxonomies be damned! Forget the box marked "baroque"! When metre all but disappears, when melody leads to elastic extemporisation, when harmonic progressions hang unresolved for what sounds like an eternity but feels like a heartbeat, when emotions scald with intensity, when sexuality burns in a singer's throat and invention supercedes convention, that's jazz. Or grazie, if you like. For von Otter's Orphic account of Scherza infida was as far removed from Handel's softly propulsive original as Sarah Vaughan's imperishable, courageous 1982 version of You are too beautiful is from the wistful little ballad written by Rodgers and Hart, and that, for my money, is great singing indeed.
Now seemingly as informed by her collaborations with David McVicar and Elvis Costello as by her nearly 20 years of experience in Baroque repertoire, von Otter's extremely physical, richly textured, highly personalised Handel might not be to the taste of the purists. Indeed accusations of self-indulgence might, with some justification, be levelled at both von Otter and Minkowski; not least for the latter's over-egged medley of Rameau's theatrical music, here pretentiously titled L'Apothéose de la Danse. Movements extracted from nearly 20 years of his increasingly experimental opéra-ballets and tragédies lyriques - including the Tambourins and Chaconne from Dardanus, the Dance of the Savages from Les Indes galantes, La Musique's exquisite air tendre from Les fêtes d'Hébé and the abstracted Overture to Zaïs - made for a breathtaking orchestral display of articulation, character, dynamic verve, virtuosity, ensemble and rhythmic panache but did not form a cohesive suite. Scherza infida's near-metreless da capo - impossible in the context of Ariodante - likewise stretched credibility, while von Otter clearly found the business of negotiating the sudden flurries of demi-semi-quavers in the ultra-cerebral orrery of the central aria of Cantata 170 with her powdery, brushed-steel chest register quite taxing. The same work also showed some dubious post-musicological expediency in Minkowski's odd replacement of the final movement's organ obbligato with a flute. But how can you criticise the gestural excesses of this orchestra when their technical aptitude and stylistic understanding is so very many leagues ahead of their competitors, when their sound combines the spice and muscularity of Musica Antiqua Köln with the elegance and refinement of Les Arts Florissants, and when Minkowski shows such absolute confidence, authority and radiant pleasure on the platform? To my knowledge the last time Les Musiciens du Louvre visited Britain was over two years ago (an unforgettable performance of Bach's Orchestral Suites at the Brighton Festival). That their Prom was relegated to Late Night status might be explained by their relative unfamiliarity to these shores so far. Next time they deserve the main slot.
At the risk of flogging a near-liquified horse here, it seems ironic to me that when the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment can fill the Royal Albert Hall for a late-night Dido, lacklustre performances of mainstream symphonic repertoire by B-list orchestras still tend to dominate the Proms; presumably reflecting the outmoded belief that the type of strings an orchestra uses is the deciding factor for bums on seats. (It's not, of course. Quality is. And Les Musiciens du Louvre are right up there with the LSO and the Berliner Philharmoniker in this respect.) One such was the BBC Philharmonic's well-intended Mahler/ Prokofiev/ Beethoven programme in Prom 69, which, though efficient enough, did not exactly count as memorable. Gianandrea Noseda's conducting is starting to show signs of serious talent, perceptiveness and eloquence but without a brass section who can engage properly with the nimble sound of his strings, a truly effective performance of Mahler's Fourth Symphony - even with Rebecca Evans's tender soprano in the last movement - is still some way off for this orchestra. Alas, the same could be said of their account of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto which, although properly prepared - thus indicating that Noseda is a smart-enough cookie to realise that people do notice when soloists are used as camouflage for lack of orchestral rehearsal time - failed to match their soloist Christian Blackshaw's long-fingered, Clifford Curzon-ish air of graceful understatement and thoughtfulness.