Concerto Koln Chamber Orchestra; August 7, 2010, Chan Centre 

Concerto Koln Chamber Orchestra   ©  The International Bach Chamber Music Festival

Concerto Koln Chamber Orchestra

© The International Bach Chamber Music Festival

The opening of MusicFest Vancouver 2010 was celebrated by the appearance of the German period instrument ensemble, Concerto Koln, in a program that included J. S. Bach’s first two Orchestral Suites, and two lesser known works by the 18th C. French composers, Antoine Dauvergne and Jean-Philippe Rameau.  The Concerto Koln was formed in 1985 and has shown remarkable enterprise in exploring and recording hitherto-neglected composers of the 18th and early 19th C.  It is one of the most active and versatile period instrument orchestras in the world, having now recorded over 50 CD’s, bringing to life composers such as Kraus, Dussek, Brunetti, Eberl, Gossec, Vanhal, Dall’Abaco, Dauvergne, Wilms, and Rosetti.  None of these are remotely household names.  It has also collaborated in excellent Handel oratorio and Mozart opera recordings under Rene Jacobs and Nicolas McGegan. 

This concert immediately illustrated just how good an ensemble can be without a conductor in charge.  There is tremendous rapport between all players, resulting in a beautifully-crafted, rhythmically alert outcome. The interaction between the divided first and second violins was a delight.  Both the Dauvergne Concert de Simphonie and the Rameau Suite de Platee, though not profound, were played with great enthusiasm, possibly giving them a higher profile than they might otherwise have.  The dance rhythms were inflected strongly in a historically-authentic way: exciting, but sometimes I did wish for a more relaxed feeling of French charm.     

Coming to Bach is coming to the great master, and the standards of judgment rise accordingly. Often, the same-size orchestra is used for all four suites.  Here Suite No. 2 was played with much smaller forces, essentially a string quartet plus flute soloist (Cordula Breuer). I found the balance and texture in this athletic performance quite enchanting. Some may want a more strongly-projected flute part but I thought it was refreshing to hear this voice in an equal partnership with the other players. For the Suite No. 1, the orchestra added further strings, oboes, and bassoon. A very conscientious performance was given, with strong articulation, momentum and sense of unity. Overall, these performances celebrated the opening of the festival very well. The second encore, Bach’s Air on the G string, yielded a further bonus: some of the most quietly-beautiful string playing that one could hope to hear.  

The Concerto Koln is a group than any lover of Baroque and early 19th C. music should become acquainted with. This ensemble is enterprising, technically outstanding, and always shows sound musical judgment. If anything, they may be a little overweight on discipline, drive and energy and a little light on charm and fantasy, but their interpretations seem to occupy a desirably central position in period performance today. For the unfamiliar, try the symphonies of Wilms (DG 474 508-2) and Rosetti (Teldec 4509-9840-2 and 0630-18301-2). For the slightly more familiar, sample Mendelssohn’s String Symphonies (Teldec 0630-17433-2) and Handel’s Julius Caesar (HMC 901385.87).  

© Geoffrey Newman 2010