Promoting Historically-Inspired Performances of Early Music and Baroque Opera
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin - 2005 North America Tour Review
by John Wall
Since the performances by Musica Antiqua Köln redefined expectations for touring baroque orchestras in the 1980s, few large ensembles have matched their precision string playing and overall cohesion. The latest to do so is the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, now touring the United States. Indeed, at the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress in Washington last Thursday, the Akamus surpassed any live performance by an early orchestra that I have heard in one respect -- the exceptional, well-coordinated playing by the oboists, Xenia Löffler and Michael Bosch, especially in a Vivaldi concerto for two oboes and in the Bach orchestral suite no. 1. (NY Times Photo.)
Regular readers of this website undoubtedly are familiar with the Akamus from their extensive discography, dating back to 1985, that includes a number of appropriately celebrated recordings directed by René Jacobs such as Keiser's Croesus, Telemann's Orpheus, Alessandro Scarlatti's Griselda & Il primo omicidio, and collections of arias sung by Cecilia Bartoli, Vivica Genaux, Dorothea Röschmann and Andreas Scholl. To my knowledge, this is the group's first American tour featuring exclusively orchestral music.
The Akamus were fortunate to book the Coolidge Auditorium, as it may be finest concert hall for an ensemble of their size (17 musicians) in the northeast. The acoustics are superb, and there are no bad seats in the house. In addition, for each concert the music librarians at the Library of Congress arrange a relevant display of open scores and memorabilia from the LOC's vast collection. Tickets to concerts at the LOC are free and may be ordered through Ticketmaster, but in my experience as an out-of-towner without a ticket, there invariably have been sufficient empty seats for all the standbys, of whom there were about 75 at the Akamus concert last week.
The following works were performed by the Akamus in Washington:
Handel, Suite from Almira (HWV 1, Hamburg 1705). Georg Kallweit, violin leader.
Vivaldi, Concerto in d Minor RV 535 for two oboes, strings and continuo. Xenia Löffler & Michael Bosch, solo oboes. Georg Kallweit, violin leader.
J.S. Bach, Concerto in d Minor BWV 1043 for two violins, strings and continuo. Georg Kallweit & Midori Seiler, solo violins.
J.S. Bach, Orchestral Suite no. 1 in C Major BWV 1066. Stephan Mai, violin leader.
Geminiani, Concerto Grosso in d Minor, arrangement of Corelli's "La Follia" Variations, op. 5, no. 12. Concertino: Georg Kallweit & Midori Seiler, violins & Jan Freiheit, cello.
First encore: Philipp Heinrich Erlebach (1657-1714), piece from Overture No. 4 (Hamburg 1693).
Second encore: Georg Philipp Telemann, air (source unknown).
When the Akamus took the stage, I was immediately reminded of MAK. The men were dressed in black suits with black or dark blue shirts -- a bit more formal that the MAK's usual all-black attire. The entire group other than the harpsichordist, cellist and lutenist, stood throughout, increasingly the normal practice for baroque concerts as sitting can restrict wind and motion.
The highlight of the opening work, the suite from Almira, was Björn Colell's improvisation on the continuo line on his archlute in the sarabande, a derivative of La Follia. Both the overture and sarabande were performed slower than often heard, providing a greater opportunity for ornamentation. Mr. Colell switched to a baroque guitar for the bourée and following dances. While I am frustrated with the non-authentic, strumming guitar continuo found throughout many recent baroque opera recordings, the limited use of a guitar in selected dance numbers and again in the Spanish-based Geminiani/Corelli La Follia variations enhanced the Akamus concert.
My initial reaction to a Vivaldi concerto on the program was to turn the page to see what would be forthcoming after the intermission. I'm a great Vivaldi enthusiast, particularly for his vocal music, but Vivaldi concertos often come across as time fillers. That certainly was not the case of the concerto for two oboes performed by the Akamus. Throughout the exceedingly difficult work, neither oboist blew a bad note. That's particularly noteworthy for a group on tour, as one's lips swell during air travel. I was just as impressed by their tasteful performance of the slow movements as by their precise execution of the fast passages. In the second largo, the second oboe echoes the first. It struck me that Mr. Bosch, the second oboe, chose exactly the right volume for the echo -- softer but not too soft.
The Bach concerto for two violins and the Bach orchestral suite, though familiar works, are rarely played as well as they were by the Akamus. The group was obviously so used to playing together and so well rehearsed that nobody missed entrances or attacks.
The final work on the program, Geminiani's La Follia variations after Corelli, is interesting musically for its demonstration of the substantial expansion in ornamentation over the ~25 years since Corelli's variations were published. The Akamus emphasized the Iberian origins of the sarabanda, with brilliantly fast string playing, guitar continuo, and violas rhythmically beating the stings with their bows in the final movement.
After thunderous applause from the full house, the Akamus played a dance by Erlebach from their recent CD of overtures from the Hamburg opera, and they eventually concluded with an aria for strings by Telemann.
My only criticism of the concert is that the harpsichord, a Dowd (Boston) French double from 1984, was not voiced loudly enough to support such a large group. I could see that Mr. Alpermann was playing with keyboards coupled, but I still couldn't hear the harpsichord most of the time.
California early music enthusiasts should make every effort to attend one of the Akamus's concerts this week in Berkeley, Napa Valley or Los Angeles.
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Georg Kallweit and Stephan Mai, concertmasters
Archlute & Baroque Guitar
Oboe & Recorder
Upcoming concerts on the tour
Sunday, 15 May - Wheeler Auditorium, Berkeley, CA (Cal Performances)
Monday, 16 May - United Methodist Church, Napa Valley, CA (Chamber Music in Napa Valley)
Wednesday, 18 May - Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA
Previous concerts on the tour: Chicago, New York, Schenectady, Washington, Boston.
Other Reviews and Links
A virtuoso group's solid and unified U.S. debut. By Russell Platt, Newsday, 11 May 2005. [No longer available online.]
Music-making is sheer joy in Berliners' hands. By Michael Cameron, Chicago Tribune, 9 May 2005. [No longer available online.]