The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Akamus) doesn’t come to London that often. Teaming up with regular collaborator Isabelle Faust and directed by leader Bernhard Forck, the period-instrument ensemble helped to settle a dispute over dates, because even in this world of sophisticated research and forensic techniques, where things can be identified with pinpoint accuracy, scholars have still found it remarkably difficult to date many of Bach’s works. This is mainly because of a lack of proper records and having to rely on clues gleaned from copied parts and stylistic differences in the music. Cue the musicologists. To help fix this complex tapestry of uncertain dates, Akamus provided the silver thread while Isabelle Faust provided the golden needle, as they let the music itself decrypt the chronological codes.

Isabelle Faust © Felix Broede
Isabelle Faust
© Felix Broede

The second of Bach’s four orchestral suites is a B minor scoring for solo flute, strings and continuo probably dating from the late 1730s, although it is thought that this might be based on an earlier version in A minor (possibly from 1730, or even earlier), scored with a solo violin part instead of solo flute. So, to add a moment of intrigue to the opening of the concert, Faust and Akamus decided to perform the rarely performed earlier version, his Suite no. 2 in A minor, BWV1067a, which meant there was a chance to hear the famous Badinerie, often used as a stand-alone showpiece for flute, performed on the violin. 

The performers took to the stage, standing throughout and swaying to the music with good-natured enthusiasm. Akamus performed with concentration and technical precision, and the presence of Isabelle Faust seemed to enhance their playing, which was well-defined, poised and induced some delightfully intelligent phrasing. Faust and Forck provided carefully balanced interchanges, with Faust wonderfully intricate in the Polonaise’s Double. Akamus revelled in the fiery-paced Bourrées and Badinerie, producing some exhilarating moments around the more sedate and regal movements, although there was a sense of homogeneity in the Ouverture.

Faust and Akamus were equally impressive in Bach’s three violin concertos, which included the Concerto in E major, BWV1042 and the Concerto in A minor, BWV1041. These may have been written in Köthen in 1717-1723, although this is still disputed. Faust played with natural phrasing, a cleanness of tone and diamond clarity, with an excellent supporting cast in the fine Akamus players. There were some nice contrasts in dynamics giving extra shape to the pieces, except for a slight drowning of the soloist in the third movement of the E major concerto. Faust in particular brought thoughtfully meditative qualities and infused a real dialogue, with just the right amount of decoration, not elaborately overdone. She was joined by Bernhard Forck in the popular Double Concerto for 2 violins, BWV1043, providing well-judged balance and helping to bring out the interweaving lines. The slow movement was food for the soul, beautifully presented with gently undulating lines and pulsing undercurrents, before the combined forces created incisive storm clouds in the Finale.

At least with the one CPE Bach piece on the programme there were no doubts over the date. CPE Bach was an influential composer and an important link between Baroque and Classical, with admirers as significant as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. His Symphony no. 5 in B minor, Wq182/5, one of his popular "Hamburg" symphonies for strings written in 1773, has his usual three-movement format, fast-slow-fast. Akamus cantered through a fairly brisk-paced Allegretto impressively, with the scurrying passages held together skilfully and falling just short of losing control, thanks to the musicality and cohesion of the ensemble. There was good contrast in the pensive Larghetto, and the Presto was punchy and gutsy.

Maybe they couldn’t quite settle the dispute over Bach’s dates, but by performing the pieces together Faust and Akamus may have provided some musical clues, although with such fine playing they actually showed that it just doesn’t matter. The three German towns who will hear this same programme over the next three days are in for a real treat.