The Academy of Ancient Music has entered a period of revitalization under its new music director, harpsichordist Richard Egarr. The period-instrument orchestra, formed in 1973, had a penchant for sounding somewhat dry and inhibited under its founder, Christopher Hogwood. Yet the group that came to Emmanuel Church on Friday night - courtesy of the Boston Early Music Festival - demonstrated a rich, well-rounded sound and vigor to spare.
They brought a menu of Baroque concertos, two apiece from Bach, Handel, and Telemann. It was a wisely chosen program, since it put the focus on the judicious interplay between soloists and ensemble. Handel's Concerto Grosso in A Minor, Op. 6, let the orchestra's 10 strings show off a wide range of color and an easy, self-effacing virtuosity. And there was an almost intuitive give and take between Egarr and the orchestra in Bach's Harpsichord Concerto in G Minor.
Egarr is a dynamic leader. Conducting from the harpsichord, he seemed to direct largely with well-timed jerks of his head. His facial expressions communicated the music's affective profile, and during particularly intense moments he almost looked dizzy. His brief spoken introductions to most of the pieces showed him to be a witty and intelligent emcee. After discussing the first three movements of the Handel concerto, he cheekily concluded by noting that, "Quite frankly, the fourth movement is simply irritating." (He had a point, though the performance was no less enjoyable for that.)
The Telemann works were a particular delight. He was probably history's most prolific composer, which tends to dampen expectations for any particular piece. But his two concertos were stylish and unexpectedly inventive. The Academy's suave playing allowed a listener to enjoy Telemann's unusual harmonic turns, varied textures, and spry rhythms.
Egarr showed his keyboard prowess in Bach's Fifth Brandenburg Concerto; the elaborate first-movement cadenza remains one of the most gloriously strange things in Baroque music. Flutist Rachel Brown and violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk made excellent contributions during their solo turns. A Telemann concerto for flute, violin, and obbligato cello, from the "Tafelmusik" collection, gave cellist Joseph Crouch a welcome turn in the spotlight. It brought the evening to a rousing close.