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Briefly Noted: Frederick the Great

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Friedrich der Grosse: Music for the Berlin Court, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

(released on March 13, 2012)
HMC 902132 | 73'58"
The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin would be at or near the top of my list of active early music ensembles in the world, were I interested in such lists. The group, playing on often finicky early instruments, produces a uniformly beautiful sound and rhythmically coordinated and vivacious ensemble that is as pleasing live -- last heard in 2005 at the Library of Congress -- as on disc. Their newest disc marks the tercentenary of Friedrich II, King of Prussia (1712-1786), with a selection of music by composers who resided at Friedrich der Große's brilliant, musically rich, and enlightened court in Berlin. At the center of the recording is one of the flute sonatas (no. 190 in C minor, "pour Potsdam") by the monarch himself, who was trained as a flutist and composer by Johann Joachim Quantz, pieces that all flutists play, including Mrs. Ionarts, which is how I came to know them, as her accompanist. This rather gorgeous version features the willowy traverso playing of Christoph Huntgeburth, with the ensemble's keyboard player, Raphael Alpermann, on fortepiano. Although the instrument is not listed in the booklet, Alpermann seems to use a janissary stop that engages a very soft cymbal stop as a rhythmic accent in this piece. (The sound may just be an artifact of the instrument's slightly clanging tone, but it came across on my excellent headphones only in the Friedrich sonata.)

Alpermann plays the solo of a harpsichord concerto by Christoph Nichelmann (1717-1762), somewhat incongruously but beautifully, on (the same?) fortepiano. It is a fine, fleet performance, led with alacrity by violinist Stephen Mai, with fluttery cadenzas. Two pieces by the prolific Johann Gottlieb Graun (1703-1771) are featured, starting with a brilliant, full-blooded ouverture (D minor, GraunWV A:XI:2), showcasing the ensemble's excellent woodwinds. Jan Freiheit takes the solo in Graun's viola da gamba concerto (A minor, GraunWV A:XIII:14) -- the program's most substantial piece of music, centered on this instrument already regarded as antiquarian -- with results that are gutsy but not as polished as could be (matching our impressions of when we heard him play as cello soloist with Concerto Köln at the Library of Congress this past spring). Perhaps the most famous composer at the Berlin court (the only major name left off this disc is Franz Benda), C.P.E. Bach (1714-1788), concludes this diverting disc, with the first of the Wq. 183 sinfonies, actually composed after he had left Berlin. The C.P.E. Bach symphonies are always enigmatic and opinion-altering pieces, certainly the case here right from the start, with the syncopated, repeated-note main theme of the first movement. (For another interesting perspective on this recording, see the comments on the album by Erik Dorset, one of the ensemble's violinists.)

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