|The musicians of Concerto Köln.|
A little over a week ago, one of the city's great annual musical pleasures began - the Boston Early Music Festival season (their next concert is the Tallis Scholars on Dec. 2). By now BEMF has a global reputation, although I still notice many Bostonians are surprised to hear it - so I'll say this one more time: early music - not the BSO - is what is currently putting this city on the classical map. This point has perhaps been obscured for the general population by the prejudices of local reviewers, but that attitude may be slowly changing, as the number of quality recordings, concerts, discoveries, and a resulting rising tide of general enthusiasm, have built up around Boston Baroque, Handel and Haydn, and BEMF.
Of these three powerhouses, BEMF may hold to the most consistent standard - certainly last weekend's Boston debut by Concerto Köln was utterly impeccable, and demonstrated just how far sensitive, intelligent, historically informed artistry can go. Was there a "new vision" on offer here, or some shocking new interpretive stance? Not really - but who cared? Playing this good makes you forget all about that kind of thing.
The concert's exquisite quality was all the more striking in that - well, to be honest, I'm not sure the folks we saw in Boston are actually the Concerto Köln core, if you will; I recognized few of the faces I saw at Emmanuel Church on the ensemble's website. Still, under the expert guidance of concertmistress Mayumi Hirasaki (the group claims to be devoted to collaboration, but she clearly was calling the shots), this ensemble sounded as if they'd been playing together for ages. Their tux-and-gown persona is somewhat buttoned-down, but this belies the fact that their musicianship is passionate: their pacing was brisk and buoyant, the phrasing nuanced and singing, and their intonation - close to perfect.
The program was a mix of Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann, and the lesser-known Evaristo Felice Dall'Abaco, an Italian contemporary of Vivaldi who spent much of his career in the courts of Germany. The only piece that was familiar to me was the Telemann (whose dancing final Presto, often excerpted, was brilliantly brought off here), but all were lovely - even transporting in the case of the Handel. To be honest, I found the first offering from dall'Abaco a bit superficial, but the second, Concerto a più instrumenti in D major, was superb, with a muscular opening Allegro, a central aria that was indeed all airy atmosphere, and a Rondeau that was dense with virtuosic keyboard flourishes (from the expert Gerald Hambitzer).
Elsewhere the ensemble conjured a stately, subtle reading of Vivaldi's Concerto in G minor, RV 156, that also featured a finely calibrated rhythmic build that never grew frantic in its acceleration (o rare!). The same paradoxical sense of confident control over sweet, light speed were evident in Cordula Breuer's bird-like flights on the sopranino recorder during Vivaldi's Concerto in C Major, RV 443. The Telemann Concerto in E minor featured Breur again, this time on alto recorder, in exquisitely balanced duets with Marion Moonen on transverse flute (one of those moments in which the ensemble's commitment to collaboration was clearly evident). I must also mention the solos by Yves Bertin on bassoon in Vivaldi's Concerto in E minor, RV 484 - these were some of the most eloquent stretches of sound I've ever heard from that particular instrument.
Thanks to the crowd's rousing applause, we got one encore - the last movement of Giovanni Battista Sammartini’s Symphony in A Major. Hopefully, however, Concerto Köln will become a fixture on the BEMF schedule, so there will be many more encores to come.