Cologne is a hotbed of both contemporary and early music. We well remember Musica Antiqua Köln, which toured and concertized widely under Reinhard Goebel from 1973 to 2007 and had a substantial discography. Concerto Köln is 25 years-old and likewise has had great success in the early music market, pushing its temporal limits to Mozart and even Beethoven. But did we really hear the Concerto Köln that we know from their recordings, or was it rather a touring package such as the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, which is not the Boston Pops?
Concerto Köln’s website lists 17 regular musicians— in Boston we heard only four of them. This may be because the ensemble was simultaneously preparing a tour in France of a rare opera, Leonardo Vinci’s (c.1690-1730) Artaserse. Six of the thirteen guest players were not even on CK’s official guest roster. The excellent, prize-winning concertmaster Mayumi Hirasaki, who led with exuberant and outgoing flair, was one such fine freelancer.
Boston has a distinguished history in the early music movement through a variety of practitioners. Historic instrument building in the United States began here through the ministrations of Arnold Dolmetsch, who from 1905 – 1911 directed an atelier for the production of clavichords, virginals and harpsichords at the Chickering manufactory. He also gave many concerts in the area with his consort. Boston Early Music Festival is one particularly valuable descendant of Dolmetsch the impresario.
For BEMF Concerto Köln presented 14 conductorless players in a program entitled “Concertare” at Emmanuel Church last night. The verb concertare means “to cooperate collaboratively”, or to harmonize. According to the press notes, “The intimate concertos [by Handel, Telemann, Vivaldi and dall’Abaco]…demonstrate collaborative aspects of Baroque concertos as well as their more combative nature.” Collaboration was much in evidence.
Handel’s Concerto Grosso in G Major, op. 6, No. 1 evinced none of the combativeness of the bi-polar construct. It began with a quicksilver geniality and refinement. Standing (except for cellist and harpsichordist) in a tail-coated version of A Far Cry, the mostly string band really delivered the goods. They were especially convincing in the Allegro movements where their perfection of tuning, immaculateness of execution, unanimity of ensemble and joie de vivre were astonishing. The Adagio was less successful, in part because the gut strings and Baroque bows were unable to deliver any sumptuousness of sound or saftigkeit in the voluminous sanctuary of Emmanuel Church.
On a regular basis, Emmanuel Music makes a quite different case for early music in this space. Its Bach Cantata Series regularly presents an orchestra of roughly the same number of players, but with modern instruments and more romantic freedom. Their playing conveys more affect but is less astonishing in execution.
In its performances and recordings, Concerto Köln has been making the case that Evaristo Felice dall’Abaco (1675-1742) is a neglected master. His Concerto a più istrumenti in E Minor, op. 5, No. 3 (c1719) again offered a means to show off just how quick and lively this band could be in the fast and dancelike movements. In the slower sections one was annoyed a bit by the tic of swelling on individual notes and the reliance on stepped dynamics. And there were predicable grand retards in nearly every cadence.
The first half of the program concluded with a pair of Vivaldi concerti. First we heard the Concerto in G Minor for strings and harpsichord. The soloist Gerald Hambitzer played a fine French double after Hemsch built by D. Jaques Way and lent by Peter Sykes. He was hampered by the tails-out placement of the lidless instrument. Other than some lofty fan vaulting there was nothing to reflect the sound back to the audience. In consequence, Hambitzer was inaudible in the tuttis though we liked what we could hear of his solo riffs.
Vivaldi’s Concerto in C Major for sopranino recorder, strings and basso continuo RV 443 gave CK regular Cordula Breuer a chance to take flight with her birdlike recorder. It too was inaudible within instrumental textures, but Breuer’s solo passages amazed with their velocity and felicity. In the Largo movement, on the other hand, which recalled some of Vivaldi’s sequences in The Four Seasons, one yearned for the warmth of a transverse flute. Neverthless, in the concluding Allegro Breuer really ignited the crowd with her facile piping.
The second half commenced with more Vivaldi: his Concerto in E Minor for bassoon and orchestra, RV 484. Yves Bertin made a dramatic case for the period instrument’s ability to render fast passagework, but its tone in more lyric lines was a bit introverted.
After another lively and enjoyable concerto by dall’Abaco, we came to the closer, Telemann’s Concerto in E Minor for transverse flute and recorder. Cordula Breuer, playing what looked like an alto recorder, was joined by Marion Moonen on transverse flute. The two solo instruments blended quite well in their middle ranges, with the recorder becoming more assertive in its upper registers and the transverse flute dominating in its lower reaches. In the last movement, a Presto in a Turkish or Janissary style, we were reminded of the program’s thematic exegesis: we finally heard combativeness. Our pulses were mightily raised; we were rewarded with an encore of the last movement of Giovanni Battista Sammartini’s Symphony in A Major.