Really, the violins' highest notes said it all. It's so easy for those upper-register sounds to come across as ragged, boarding on squeaky.
But the violinists of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields showed how those notes can thrill in an engaging performance, filled with warmth and tinged with humor.
The Bach Festival Society of Winter Park presented the touring chamber orchestra at Trinity Preparatory School on Saturday. Joining the Academy were cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan, whose dynamic solo work further upped the thrills.
Founded in 1959, the London-based group has built a worldwide following based on its frequent tours, myriad recordings and work on film soundtracks such as "Amadeus" and "The English Patient."
The touring chamber ensemble performs without a conductor, which provokes an anticipatory thrill similar to that found in students when their teacher leaves the classroom unattended.
That feeling was heightened from the start, with the first movement of "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge," Op. 10. Each time the bows glided across the strings, the sense of expectancy grew.
English composer Benjamin Britten's 1937 work has 10 movements; even in the slower portions, the Academy kept energy levels high.
One result of a conductor-free performance: The soloists take the lead during their appearances. With hands busy playing, they direct with body language so heads jerk and shoulders heave. Weilerstein kept a melodramatic demeanor throughout Haydn's Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major but the physical theatrics belied her dazzlingly clean playing style.
During both her and Barnatan's pieces, a masterful dynamic balance was struck between orchestra and soloist, letting the featured musician emerge from the orchestral sound naturally and gracefully.
Barnatan ripped through Bach's Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. Though he impressively sailed through the athletic opening and closing movements, his musicality was most evident in the middle Adagio section where a simple trill could be gentle as a feather or arresting as a siren.
The concluding work, Haydn's Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp Minor, is nicknamed the "Farewell Symphony." And it was a farewell, as musician after musician left the stage in the final movement, so the sound wound down quietly. In lesser hands, this could have been a trite conceit. Here, it was memorably unusual and pleasingly effective.
"This is as good as it gets," said John Sinclair, the Bach Festival Society's artistic director, in his introduction to the concert. I can't disagree.