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Concerto Köln at LoC

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J. S. Bach, Orchestral Suites,
Concerto Köln

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E. F. Dall'Abaco, Concerti,
Concerto Köln (2005)
The playing of Concerto Köln, heard on Friday night in a blockbuster concert at the Library of Congress, offered an apt contrast to the more pop-oriented approach of Christina Pluhar and L’Arpeggiata last month. Here was musicianship just as virtuosic, a sense of improvisatory freedom just as fluid and spontaneous -- just with actual 18th-century music. The visit by this highly esteemed early music ensemble, its first to Washington in fourteen years, was high on our list of things to hear this month, not least because the ensemble, one of the pioneers of the historically informed performance (HIP) movement, continues to break ground in the refreshing and brash style of their performances.

Harpsichordist Markus Märkl provided a thread of varied improvisation that united the music, a selection of solo concertos and orchestral pieces from the late Baroque hit list, both in his continuo playing, admirably inventive, and in the little intonationes that he spun effortlessly from each tuning session into the key of the piece to follow. Motifs from the ritornello of the first movement of Bach's third Brandenburg Concerto seemed to ripple through Märkl's tuning chords, but it may have been my imagination. Earlier versions of the group's program had included Bach's second Brandenburg Concerto, which perhaps because the group's trumpeter was not on the tour, was replaced with Brandenburg No. 4, which also had to be canceled because the group's concertmaster, Markus Hoffmann, ran into trouble obtaining a U.S. visa.

Without their leader, a few minor moments of uncertainty crept into the violin section, with the firsts and seconds standing on opposite sides of the stage. The tuning of the bass line was at times a little raucous, although it was not always clear if the lead cello, the violone, or the occasionally added bassoon was to blame. Overall, this was a strikingly unified performance, with all of the musicians so rhythmically unified, their careful monitoring of one another replacing the need for a conductor. The dance movements, as in Bach's first orchestral suite, music the group has recorded so memorably, were enlivened with a sense of weight and lightness, giving the aural sense of choreographed movement. The slow movements were shot through with poignancy, and scintillating virtuosity was always put to the service of expressive line. Only a little pre-Classical sinfonia (A major), by Giovanni Battista Sammartini (1700-1775), disappointed and only because it was not as perfectly formed a piece as the earlier Baroque pieces on the program.

The assortment of soloists was mostly excellent, led by Susanne Regel who not only tamed the often unruly oboe d'amore but made it sing poignantly in Bach's A major concerto for that instrument (BWV 1055, reconstructed from the harpsichord concerto Bach later adapted from it). The group's artistic director, Martin Sandhoff, shone on flauto traverso, matched on that instrument by Cordula Breuer in a little gem of a concerto (op. 5/3, E minor) by Evaristo Felice Dall'Abaco (1675-1742), a composer also featured in the group's discography. The pair of musicians came back for another astounding display of virtuosity, with Breuer on recorder and Sandhoff on traverso, in the Telemann concerto for those instruments (E minor) that replaced the Brandenburg Concerto on this concert. Only guest cellist Jan Freiheit, formerly of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, sounded merely good, in an odd little cello concerto by Vivaldi (D minor, RV 407), with some sour intonation in the slow movement and momentary lacks of clarity in the demanding runs of the fast movements. A single encore, the familiar Air from Bach's third orchestral suite (later adapted as the so-called "Air on the G String"), was played lovingly but straightforwardly, without a single rolled eye, from the musicians or even the critic.

The short American tour by Concerto Köln ends on Tuesday night, with a concert at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles. More Bach is on the way at the Library of Congress, when Tonya Tomkins performs all six of the composer's solo cello suites (April 28, 8 pm).

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