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Musica Alta Ripa at Dumbarton Oaks

The first part of this review was an appreciation of Dumbarton Oaks. The reason I was there Sunday night, May 8, was to hear the last in the series of concerts sponsored by the Friends of Music.

Available from Amazon:
G. P. Telemann, Overtures, Sonatas, Concertos, vol. 1, Musica Alta Ripa (January 2004)
G. P. Telemann, Overtures, Sonatas, Concertos, vol. 2, Musica Alta Ripa (July 2004)
G. P. Telemann, Overtures, Sonatas, Concertos, vol. 3, Musica Alta Ripa (U.S. release on June 21, 2005)
The Dumbarton Oaks concerts are a subscription-only series, and most of those who attend have a long association with the series. Valerie Stains, music adviser and coordinator of the Friends of Music, was kind enough to allow Ionarts to attend on Sunday night. For the occasion, Musica Alta Ripa had made the trip to Georgetown from Hannover, Germany (their name comes from the old name for Hannover, Alta Ripa, meaning the High Bank), for two concerts at Dumbarton Oaks (May 8 and 9). Prior to this, the only other time they had played in the United States was at the Bach Festival Philadelphia in 2000. Since they formed in 1984, they have produced several recordings of 17th- and 18th-century music, played on original instruments. Their latest recording project has been three CDs of the best works of Baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767), a selection from which they performed live at Dumbarton Oaks.

Telemann is the latest composer to whose music the group has given new lustre. (Their recordings of J. S. Bach's concerti, many of which seem like such familiar pieces, have received awards and critical praise for their newness of sound. Their Vivaldi recordings share the market with several other groups who have been rehabilitating il prete rosso: Europa Galante, REBEL Ensemble, and Concerto Italiano.) What is the recipe? A small group (eight players were at Dumbarton Oaks, but they never shared the stage all together), focusing on one composer's music for a period of time, playing on instruments close to those in use at the time the music was composed. (According to the conversation I had with second violist Christoph Heidemann over champagne afterward, the violins are actual 17th-century instruments, but his viola is a modern copy based on such instruments.) Is this the only way to play Bach or Telemann? No, but the ear does learn something quite important from hearing it this way. The old instruments have weaknesses and strengths that are different from those of modern ones, and therein is the crux of what makes this sound so interesting.

Musica Alta RipaOne thing those instruments require is tuning. A lot of tuning. Minutes worth of tuning after each piece and sometimes each movement. The concert began with a Concerto in D Major, for two violins, viola, and continuo (the Dumbarton program did not specify information for each piece beyond key and instrumentation). This featured the hardest-working violinist in the group, who is the musical leader of this very egalitarian group, Anne Röhrig, as well as the remarkably versatile Ursula Bundies, on the violin (she is also the group's viola soloist). One thing the group favors is tempi that move at a very good clip, for which Ms. Röhrig often seemed to be the impetus, driving the others forward with the strength of her playing. (Her pure tone, with a little more strength, would be incisive enough to cut glass.) This piece and the one that followed it, Concerto in C Major, for recorder, two violins, viola, and continuo (I think this is TWV 51:C1, found on CD 1 at left), were both very enjoyable pieces, showing Telemann at his best. Recorder soloist Danya Segal played on only two of the recital's pieces, on what I think was an alto recorder, and she performed very well, with grace and good taste in ornamentation, as well as nearly faultless technique and intonation. Although the REBEL Ensemble's Matthias Maute, whom I heard recently at the Library of Congress, is a flashier player in just about every way, I found Ms. Segal's performances both quite affecting.

Telemann was grotesquely prolific, even moreso than Bach and that's saying something. He penned some 1,100 or so cantatas alone, leaving Bach to eat his dust, and even a handful of operas; just looking at the New Grove works list makes my head spin. One accusation leveled against him, and not without merit, is that his facility with composition meant that he composed a lot of facile pieces. Judging only by this program, he had listened carefully to all the instrumental styles of his contemporaries and their predecessors: Corelli, Vivaldi, Lully, to name only a few. What made him the leading composer of the period, and what led the Leipzig town council to seek him first as their new cantor before settling on Bach as their third choice, was the style galant grace of his music. Where Bach often looked backward (even settling on the archaic ricercar as the summa of his contrapuntal technique), Telemann looked forward and often sounds preclassical, especially in the instrumental works. (The same stylistic traits are not absent in Bach's music, just not as frequent.) In short, Telemann's music goes down incredibly easy.

Musica Alta Ripa, Georgetown, May 8, 2005Two sonatas, both descended from the da chiesa variety (in four movements, not related to dance rhythms), concluded the first half. For the Sonata in D Major, cellist Juris Teichmanis played alone with Bernward Lohr on the harpsichord (if I am not mistaken, it was the same Thomas and Barbara Wolf instrument I heard David Cates play at the Library of Congress last month). This piece is not one of his best, although Teichmanis showed incredible skill on the unruly violoncello, managing to coax the best possible tone in spite of the instrument's limitations. The Sonata in F Major, for two violins, two violas, cello, and continuo (found, I think, on CD 2) is a much better piece, showing Telemann's awareness of Corelli's music.

Ursula Bundies played the solo viola part in the Concerto in G Major (TWV 51:G9, I think, on CD 1), with Anne Röhrig and Susanne Dietz on the violin parts. Bundies produced a gorgeous tone on the lowest strings of her viola, in that dangerous zone on the modern instrument in which the viola can sound like a frog croaking. Here Telemann, like Bach, is a quick study of Vivaldi, using an Italian-style ritornello in the second and fourth movements. Ms. Bundies's ornamentation, so important in Baroque music, was gracefully handled and not excessive. Danya Segal returned on the alto recorder with four of her colleagues for the Quartet in G Minor, which is a nice piece.

Just to show Telemann's cosmopolitan range (he spent time in Paris, too), the group concluded with the Ouverture à 5 in B Minor (recorded on CD 2 and worth a listen). Although it begins with a Lullian ouverture, the piece is really a suite of dance movements, not in the standard ordering. This is where Anne Röhrig, on the solo violin part, really shone along with her fellow players, because there was an irresistable rhythmic vitality in their playing, leading up to the final Rodomontate, a title that evokes the boasting of a soldier. There are plenty of martial qualities in the movement, like the violent tremolo in the continuo (what Monteverdi called the stile concitato), and on the basis of their virtuoso playing, Ms. Röhrig and her band deserve to boast. The applause of the small audience was not enough to encourage an encore, but we adjourned to the cool air of the Music Room terrace to partake of a Dumbarton Oaks final Friends of Music concert tradition, a glass of champagne with the musicians.

Due to the renovation work in progress at Dumbarton Oaks—the buildings are already in a disarray of packing boxes—the concerts for the next two seasons will be held in a different building on the estate. The schedule will be altered to accommodate three concerts (on Friday, Saturday, Sunday—no more Mondays), because that venue seats fewer people. Subscribers will have more freedom in their choice of concerts, and the price has been raised from $30 to $40 per concert. Next year's program has not been announced, but you may contact Valerie Stains, music advisor and coordinator of the Friends of Music at (202) 339-6436 or by e-mail ( for information about subscribing.

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