Revue Musica Antiqua Köln in Retrospect

Back in 1996 the journal Early Music Today reported that it was apparently no longer fashionable to be 'authentic'. Practitioners were 'more likely to talk about historically justified techniques that create an historically-informed performance'. So, 21 years after winning a Gramophone Award, how does Musica Antiqua Köln's five-disc compilation of Bach's chamber music square up to the changed shibboleths?

The short answer is: amazingly well. And the reason: most of these performances were recorded at the beginning of the 1980s, before the rot of impersonality really set in, though a pointer to future trends may be heard in the sonatas for harpsichord and violin - the most recent of the recordings, dating from late 1982 and early 1983.

Robert Hill is the harpsichordist and his rigid approach to the first movement of BWV1014 anticipates the didacticism that plagued many a period-instrument performance; and though he relaxes in other movements, his hard-edged tone is often forbidding. Not so Reinhard Goebel, whose violin playing is flexible and expressive.

But the treats come when Hendrik Bouman replaces Hill, and accompanies Jaap Ter Linden in the viola da gamba sonatas and Wilbert Hazelzet in the works for flute. Bouman extracts a softer timbre from his instruments (even the one that Hill used) and his own style has an accommodating graciousness that matches the musicianship of his colleagues. Indeed, all three are superlative, and they persuasively demonstrate how to be historically justified and historically informed without resorting to intransigent dogma that is inimical to interpretation.

Cologne Musica Antigua have already given us samples of their Bach chamber music approach with the Musikalische Opfer (Archiv Produktion 2533 422, 11/79) and a record of trio sonatas (2533 448, 6/81). Since then the group seems to have undergone some sort of upheaval and several of the personnel have changed. Most of these performances, however, were recorded in 1981 and early in 1982 and it is only in the violin sonatas that we hear the newest member of the group, the harpsichordist Robert Hill.

    Gramophone, United Kingdom, October 2010