The Concertgebouw has been celebrating its 125th anniversary throughout 2013. On the darkest, rainiest Sunday evening in months, the Combattimento Consort Amsterdam defied the oncoming winter with a joyous, exuberant performance, one of a series of special celebratory concerts for this jubilee year.

Jan Willem de Vriend
Jan Willem de Vriend

I was happy that the Concertgebouw chose to hold this concert in the lovely Kleine Zaal, the recital hall, rather than in the sumptuous grandeur of the Grote Zaal. I always like to see the interactions of the musicians up close, and the Combattimento Consort plays with immense physical verve. Artistic director Jan Willem de Vriend introduced each selection, and his friendly manner created a very pleasant, informal atmosphere, which was undeniably present in the music as well.

As soon as bow hit string in the fabulously dissonant first chord of “Cahos”, the prologue to Jean-Féry Rebel’s Les élémens, I knew we were in for some fun. The consort’s playing was more gutsy than refined, but that approach worked very well for this lively programme. De Vriend and his team dig the bow boldly into the string, and the resulting sound is bright and invigorating, though now and again on the hard side. The ensemble clearly relished Rebel’s subversive flair, and played with terrific gusto and energy throughout. The flutes were rather shrill, sometimes uncomfortably so, in the Rebel, especially in the fourth movement, but were much more in balance when they returned later for the Bach. The solo horn player in the seventh movement did not play from the stage but appeared unexpectedly at the side of the concert hall, much to the surprise and pleasure of the audience.

Recorder player Erik Bosgraaf gave a performance of uninhibited drama and humour in Vivaldi’s “nightmare” concerto La notte. His physically mobile, expressive stage presence was perfectly in agreement with this ensemble’s confident showmanship and he handled the demanding passaggi with flair. The audience responded with warm enthusiasm, especially when Bosgraaf returned to the stage to deliver an impressive encore: two virtuosic variations on “Comagain” by Jacob van Eyck, played with dizzying speed and agility. The variations are based on John Dowland’s “Come again, sweet love doth now invite” from his First booke of songes or ayres. One condition of van Eyck’s employment at the Janskerk in Utrecht was that he should play his recorder in the churchyard of an evening, to entertain the public. If what I heard on Sunday is anything to go by, the churchyard must have been a remarkably lively place!

C.P.E. Bach’s double concerto for fortepiano and harpsichord was a particularly pleasurable part of the evening. It was exciting to hear these two instruments together, and Ronald Brautigam and Francesco Corti delivered an elegant, precise and very delicate performance. The Larghetto second movement was delicious, with warm and gracious playing from the ensemble lovingly framing the tender, meditative conversation between piano and harpsichord. After showing gentleness and restraint in the Larghetto, the ensemble’s irrepressible energy burst out again in the Presto with more than a hint of mischief. The last piece programmed was Telemann’s jubilant concerto for three oboes and three violins. The oboe section had a lean, clean sound and the spirited exchange between oboes and violins seemed to invite the audience to join the party. Audiences in the Netherlands sometimes give standing ovations almost as a matter of courtesy, but this one was an immediate, spontaneous and enthusiastically genuine gesture of thanks for an evening of frank enjoyment.

In addition to being one of the Concertgebouw Jubilee concerts, this concert was one of the last the Combattimento Consort Amsterdam will give together in their current form. De Vriend is leaving the ensemble in January 2014 in order to focus on his conducting career. The other musicians will continue to play together under the name Combattimento. Understandably, their playing on Sunday had the uninhibited fizz and crackle of a farewell party. Their Christmas Oratorio tour opens on 15 December: if you need a tonic for the cold dark weather, you won’t want to miss it.

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