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14.5.05

Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin at Library of Congress

Continuing with our German Early Music Ensemble Week at Ionarts (after we saw Musica Alta Ripa at Dumbarton Oaks on Sunday), the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin appeared on the stage of Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress. In terms of when they were founded, in the early 1980s, this group is on the list of the most authentic of the authentic historical practice groups. After struggling during the bad old days in Soviet-dominated East Germany, they have become the most respected early music outfit in reunited Germany, making several recordings, including a CD of opera arias by Gluck with one of their vocal collaborators, one Cecilia Bartoli, which won a Grammy in 2001. In spite of their prominence, this concert was part of their first-ever concert tour in the United States, which began with the University of Chicago and Zankel Hall in New York and continues from here in Boston (May 13), Berkeley and Napa (May 15 and 16), and UCLA's Royce Hall in Los Angeles (May 18).

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Cecila Bartoli, Dreams and Fables: Gluck Italian Arias, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (2001)
available at Amazon
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Ouvertüren: Music for the Hamburg Opera, released in the U.S. on May 10, 2005
Akamus (their chosen acronym, according to their Web site) took the stage looking like the cast of Guys and Dolls, with the men in black suits and shirts with colorful ties and the women in various combinations of black and bright colors. They are a democratically organized group, meaning that they do not have a conductor. The players switch positions and parts from piece to piece, and one of two violinists acts as leader on most pieces, to establish the tempo and give some direction. This founding principle of equality was one of the things that the state-controlled music program in East Germany disliked about Akamus. Far from being a disadvantage, it gives the group a natural sense of cohesion and cooperation.

The program began with what was, in my opinion, the most stunning performance of the concert, the suite from Handel's opera Almira, Königin von Kastilien, produced at the Hamburg Oper in 1705. (This work is featured on the new Akamus CD, Ouvertüren, tracks 19 to 27, link at left.) Two things struck me about this performance. The Bourrée movement revealed the group's interpretation of this dance type as something ultrafast and boisterous, with soprano recorder (on which instrument solo oboist Xenia Löffler doubled throughout the evening) and feisty guitar (played by theorbist Björn Colell). All of the bourrées the group played (including on the recording) have this rollicking character, which is unlike what I have heard from other groups.

I enjoyed this aspect of their interpretation, that each dance has its own character and the group clearly revels in the contrasts the dances provide. The Bourrée was preceded by the slinkiest, sexiest Sarabande I have ever heard. The strings (no winds and no harpischord) played the simple series of homophonic chords in the score sotto voce, while Björn Colell improvised a gorgeous theorbo solo—a little dirty, a little jazzy, a little Michel Legrand—from the continuo part. The dance had the perfect lilting Sarabande feel (accent on beat two in triple meter) and reminded us of the languid, salacious origins of the Moorish-Spanish zarabanda. The Menuet that followed the Bourrée was another contrast, weighty in its slow triple meter and quite pompous.

Other Articles:

George Loomis, Festival at Leipzig highlights two Bachs (International Herald Tribune, May 4)

Russell Platt, A virtuoso group's solid and unified U.S. debut (Newsday, May 11)

James R. Oestreich, Antiquarian Intents, With German Democracy in Action (New York Times, May 12)
The middle part of the program was not as exciting or new, with three chestnuts of Vivaldi and Bach reinterpreted in a different light. The ensemble's two excellent oboists, Xenia Löffler and Michael Bosch, were featured in Vivaldi's Concerto in D Minor, RV 535, for two oboes. They were playing on reconstructions of Baroque instruments, which add an element of technical struggle to an already challenging piece (especially at the typical Akamus brisk tempo). Except for one brief, glaring nonresolution to what was supposed to be a unison, the two soloists played most admirably.

Georg Kallweit and Midori Seiler took up the challenge with Bach's Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1043, for two violins, allowing the oboists to take a break. This was also a beautiful performance, although I have to say that the last movement (marked only Allegro, not Precipioso) was rather precipitiously fast, which made the ensemble suffer minutely at times. All the players, soloists included, were able to play well at this tempo, but there were problems in how the whole thing hung together. At one point, violinist and Akamus founder Stephan Mai, standing on the far left side and trying to negotiate his punctuated entrances after rests, on the ripieno part, was seen conducting in the air and not quite sure of where this wild ride was taking his group. This is sometimes a problem with tempos that are a little too rushed in this sort of historical performance. It also meant that the group's excellent ornamentational practice all but disappeared in the Bach and Vivaldi selections.

The second half began with Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major, BWV 1066, again featuring the two oboists prominently, along with their excellent colleague Eckard Lenzing on a bassoon. Except for the harpsichord, theorbo, and cello players, Akamus stands during performance, and that includes Mr. Lenzing with his Baroque bassoon, gripped solidly in his hands. Considering how much his fingers were flying over the keys because of his difficult, melismatic part in the Ouverture, there were probably points at which that bassoon was hanging freely in the air. In this selection, it was the folk dance feel of the Forlane that most impressed me. Again the group chose a rather fast tempo, which with the bagpipe-like drone in the bass parts, gave this movement the lilt of an improvised country dance. The two paired dances had carefully contrasted characters: Menuet II, without harpsichord had the soft sostenuto sound of a Baroque opera "sleep aria," and Bourrée II, with winds only, seemed to be a completely different dance type, since it was played at an inexplicably much slower tempo. I was a little concerned that Stephan Mai, violin leader for this selection, who danced around the stage while playing, was going to remove a colleague's eye with his darting bow.

The program concluded with Francesco Geminiani's Concerto Grosso in D Minor, an arrangement of a famous set of variations on the La Follia melody (the sonata no. 12 from the op. 5 of Arcangelo Corelli, one of Geminiani's famous teachers). (I wrote about hearing REBEL Ensemble play one of Vivaldi's takes on Les Folies d'Espagne in February, also at the Library of Congress.) The virtuosic challenge of these extended variation sets is to see how far you can go in transforming a simple little ditty and keep it interesting. Geminiani was one of the most daring violin virtuosi of his time, and he clearly knew how to push the variation for his two solo violins (Kallweit and Seiler, once again) to the limits and is sometimes quite forward-looking. At one point, what Mr. Kallweit was playing almost seemed like it could have come from the pen of a Romantic composer imitating the gypsy style of violin playing.

The crowd that attends the free concert series at the Library of Congress is usually fairly knowledgable, even erudite, and politely enthusiastic in its applause. On this night, however, they were positively raucous. (I saw more than one musicologist of my acquaintance that night, and we are always an unruly bunch.) Extended ovations merited us two encores. The first, announced by violinist Midori Seiler, was another selection from the new Ouvertüren CD, the Air Bourrée from Philipp Heinrich Erlebach's Overture in D Minor (track 12), a fast-moving tornado of a piece that was a thrill to hear although it was over in about a minute. Not satisfied, we clapped until Stephan Mai announced something that incomprehensible to many in the audience. Just after the concert, theorbist Björn Colell confirmed for me that the piece was a movement (in a slow 4) from a suite in D major by Telemann (an entire program of whose music I heard from Musica Alta Ripa on Sunday).

Any and all Ionarts readers in California should try to go hear this group at their concerts this week. This is their first trip to the United States, so be the first kid on your block to go hear them play live. To find out more information about them, you can also check out the Web site run by the charitable organization that supports and funds the group, the Freunde und Förderer der Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin.

UPDATE:
See the review by Joe Banno (Washington Post, May 14).

UPDATE 2:
If only I had known that John Wall (of newolde.com) was going to be in town for this concert, I would have enjoyed meeting him. Here is his review of the concert, and we agree on just about everything. Next time, John!

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