When the early music boom got underway in the 1950s, its principal hot spots were in Europe, with heavy concentrations of period-instrument groups in Amsterdam, Basel and London, and scholar-performers eagerly burrowing through libraries for treasures that had been gathering dust for a couple of centuries. In the United States, where college students snapped up recordings of Baroque works as if they were pop discs, an American version of the movement started in the 1960s, centered at first in Boston.

Actually, one of Boston’s first early music groups, the Handel and Haydn Society, had been part of the city’s musical life all along – it’s just that when it was founded in 1815, it was essentially a new-music group. It gave the American premieres Haydn’s “Creation” and Verdi’s “Requiem” when they were new, and commissioned Beethoven to compose an oratorio, which alas he never completed. In the early 1960s, the society’s directors looked to the organization’s roots, reconfiguring it as an ensemble devoted to historically informed, period instrument performances of Baroque and Classical scores.

A small deputation from the Handel and Haydn Society came to Portland on Saturday afternoon to play an energizing program of 18th century Italian orchestral works at Hannaford Hall, courtesy of Portland Ovations. Aisslinn Nosky, the concertmaster of the full orchestra, led an ensemble of 16, with the violins and violas split antiphonally across the stage, and a continuo group that included two cellos, bass, harpsichord and theorbo.

Time was when period instrument groups had a slightly sour sound, a byproduct of the difficulties the instruments presented once you stripped away modern streamlining, and which those of us who loved these ensembles rationalized as “the way it probably was,” back in the day. But as players grew more adept, that sourness vanished, and with it, in many cases, the tart timbres that were characteristic of the old instruments.

The Handel and Haydn Society players offer an appealing compromise: Their playing is virtuosic and their intonation is centered, but the slightly edgy coloration and gruff textures of their gut-string instruments has been preserved.

The star of their program was the Antonio Vivaldi, who was represented by three familiar works. The first, the Cello Concerto in D major (RV 403), in which Guy Fishman gave a superb performance of the solo line. In his comments before the performance, Fishman noted that a review of a Boston performance included the suggestion that he consider playing the piece so that all the notes could be heard. They were all in place and in the foreground, at Hannaford Hall, and the combination of speed and accuracy he brought to the outer movements was dazzling.

The other two Vivaldi works, both from “L’Estro Armonico,” were the Concerto for Four Violins in B minor (Op. 3, No. 10), in which Nosky shared the spotlight with Susanna Ogata, Christina Day Martinson and Adriane Post, and the Violin Concerto in G major (Op. 3, No. 3), with Nosky as the soloist. The interplay in the quadruple concerto was beautifully balanced, and although listeners naturally tend to focus on the solo lines, rather than the continuo, Simon Martyn-Ellis’ decision to switch from the theorbo to a strummed Baroque guitar, in the work’s outer movements, gave the work’s texture an unusual richness.

In the solo concerto – and in Pietro Locatelli’s “Il Pianto d’Arianna” (Op. 7, No. 6), the concerto gross that closed the program – Nosky went beyond the virtuosity you expect in this music, endowing the solo lines with a theatricality and animation that made them seem like characters in a drama. That approach was particularly apt in the Locatelli, a meditation on the myth of Ariadne, but it had an illuminating effect on the Vivaldi as well.

The Locatelli was one of several welcome rarities on the program. Others included a Chaconne by Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello, in which the stately, core dance rhythm was adorned with inventive variations, and Francesco Durante’s “La Pazzia” Concerto in A major, a piece full of unusual harmonic moves, as well as a shifting focus that moved deftly between Nosky, the split viola section and the full ensemble.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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