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REBEL at the Library of Congress

REBEL, Ensemble for Baroque MusicREBEL, the New York-based ensemble for Baroque music (named for Baroque composer Jean-Féry Rebel), performed in Coolidge Auditorium last night, as part of the Library of Congress's series of free concerts. As I mentioned Friday, REBEL joined Renée Fleming at Carnegie Hall on February 21 (see the review in the New York Times) for the Baroque portion of the program we heard here at the Kennedy Center (see Ionarts review). At the Library of Congress, they performed their "Shades of Red" all-Vivaldi program, which will be on a forthcoming CD.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) is a composer whose recent popularity (everyone is familiar with the Vivaldi sound and thinks they "know" Vivaldi) has detracted from his real musical legacy. At first we thought that he had composed a handful of neat concerti; then we learned that he wrote a lot of interesting choral and instrumental music for the Pietà orphanage; and it turned out that he had even written some successful operas. REBEL's goal is to give its audience "a more varied and nuanced image" of il prete rosso, and I did indeed leave the concert with a greater appreciation of the range of his instrumental works.

Antonio VivaldiWhat strikes you first about REBEL's approach to Vivaldi is their small number: eight players (compared to only six at Carnegie Hall), of which there are four in the continuo group. Since much of the Vivaldi repertoire is concerti, I wondered at first how this one-on-a-part ethos would affect the shaping of contrasts between soloists and ripieno. They made effective contrasts through dynamic nuancing, but I did feel that something of the essential drama of conflict between tutti and favoriti, while not entirely lost, is weakened. That being said, the performances were flashily virtuosic and therefore quite exciting and, in that sense, appropriately Baroque. REBEL played the most familiar of the concerti first, the Concerto in G (RV 443), with a solo part for flautino, and it was here that the improvisatory fantasy of stupendous recorder virtuoso Matthias Maute was best displayed. A soaring cadenza led us into the slow movement, where extravagant ornamentation dressed up any material that was repeated (which, in Vivaldi, is often). If you know the recorder only from your suppressed traumatic memories of a middle school music class, this is not that recorder, but an instrument capable of extraordinary sounds.

The program features two trio sonatas, for which, of course, not even all eight players were featured. The sonata on the first half—op. 5, no. 17, in B-flat major (RV 76)—is of the da camera variety, with a long and improvisatory preludio and two dance movements, an allemanda and a fast, triple-meter corrente. It was overshadowed by the much more impressive sonata on the second half—op. 1, no. 12, in D minor (RV 63)—which is three movements all based on the variation bass pattern known as La Follia (derived from the Renaissance pop song Les Folies d'Espagne, which apparently called out for Daniel Swenberg to join the continuo with his Michael Schreiner guitar). I have recently referred to the Baroque mania for variation sets in the music of Lully (see my review of Opera Lafayette's concert performance of Acis et Galatée). (Three of REBEL's members also perform with Violins of Lafayette.)

La Follia is a 16-measure bass/chord pattern, which is familiar from any number of Renaissance and Baroque settings (for example, in the setting by Marin Marais featured in the soundtrack of Tous les matins du monde). It is fascinating to follow this simple little tune through its permutations of tempo and meter, and Vivaldi drives his violinists especially through increasingly complex passages. First violinist Jörg-Michael Schwarz (on a 1668 Jacobus Steiner instrument) and second violinist Karen Marie Marmer (on a 1720 Antonia Maria Lavazza instrument) gave their best playing of the evening on this piece. Cellist John Moran—a Washingtonian—showed minute signs of struggle to keep up with the flashing fingers of harpsichordist Dongsok Shin, when the continuo occasionally had the running parts. (Moran's rhythmic knuckle-rapping on the body of his cello, a Peter Walmsley instrument from around 1720, was a nice touch.)

Another great discovery for me was the only sinfonia on the program—nicknamed Al Santo Sepolcro, in B minor (RV 169)—which John Moran, in his informative program notes, speculates was composed for a special Holy Week ceremony in Vienna, involving a model of the Holy Sepulchre. Here, Vivaldi is working in the da chiesa mode, calling for strings only and no continuo in the first movement, full of dramatic dissonances and slow, sustained playing. The second movement is a sort of imitative canzona, which really shows this piece as a sort of bow to the past in many ways. I plan to use it as an example of contrapuntal writing to compare with Bach's fugues. REBEL paired it with the more familiar Concerto alla Rustica (G major, RV 151), which banned all thoughts of church from our minds.

The real focus of the program, however, is the four concerti for recorder, featuring Matthias Maute on alto recorder once, soprano recorder (flautino) twice, and a humorously small sopranino recorder for the final piece. Mr. Maute was the only performer who played from memory, and the program is mostly a showcase for his extraordinary talent. His remarkable, seemingly endless breath support is matched by dizzying fingerwork. The advantage of this sort of small ensemble is their closeness, which helped keep the group together during some very dramatic alterations of tempo (disturbingly vertiginous at times). REBEL seems to do this mostly at the end of episode sections, with the soloist dragging down the tempo almost to a creep, followed by a neck-snapping return to a crisp tempo. At times, it seemed grossly affected. The encore, introduced jokingly by Jörg-Michael Schwarz as "a little more Vivaldi," was somewhat disappointingly a second run-through of a movement played earlier.

If you want to hear REBEL yourself, their upcoming schedule takes them to New York and several other American cities in March and April, and then to Germany in May.

See the review by Tom Huizenga (Washington Post, February 28).

1 comment:

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