By John Rushby-Smith

J S Bach’s four Orchestral Suites are written in the French Baroque style. Although they are in essence sets of dances, these superbly crafted works transcend the function of mere dance music by being vehicles for instrumental virtuosity, and of course by displaying Bach’s matchless mastery of the composer’s art. Years ago (in my presence) the flute virtuoso James Galway was accused by an earnest musicologist of playing a Bach movement too fast. He was told that in Bach’s day they only had the single-keyed flute and wouldn’t have been able to play it that fast. Galway promptly took a single-keyed baroque flute out of his bag and played the same music twice as quickly. “They were darned good musicians in Bach’s day,” he said, “otherwise he wouldn’t have written the music he did.”

The players who make up the Academy of Ancient Music are without question “darned good musicians”. Not, of course, because they can play fast – and they certainly can when required – but because they play with matchless refinement of tone and precision of articulation.

Directed unobtrusively from the harpsichord by Richard Egarr, the music bounced with rhythmic verve as Bach interwove the simple dance forms with contrapuntal magic, or it moved us with sheer beauty of line as he unfolded his sublime melodies, none more so than in the celebrated Air in Suite No.3 (of G-string fame though it’s not actually on the G-string.) Virtuosity abounded throughout the ensemble, whether expressed in the impeccable, crack-free utterances of the ‘natural’ valve-less trumpets, the delicate bowing of gut strings, or the stunningly agile cross-fingering of the almost key-less woodwind, revealed at its best in the solo lines of flautist Rachel Brown and bassoonist Ursula Leveaux, which were allowed just the right amount of prominence.

This was ‘authentic’ performance devoid of the self-conscious mannerisms that beset some period ensembles. It was simply darned good musicianship of the highest order.