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Baroque ensemble Rebel provides expert introduction to overlooked composers

Rebel, a baroque ensemble founded in 1991 in the Netherlands, is now based in New York, with players of diverse backgrounds. Its performance Sunday at the Dumbarton Oaks Museum was subtitled “Rediscoveries,” presenting lesser-known works by familiar names (Telemann and Handel) and pieces by composers few of us have heard of: Theodor Schwartzkopff, Johann Theile, Giorgio Belitze and Johann Hasse, all associated with the 17th-century Württemberg court in Stuttgart, Germany.

The eight musicians were highly expert, presenting the music with scholarly care and lively enjoyment. The string players are willing to employ some vibrato, arbitrary and inconsistent though it is. They don’t go too much in for the notorious messa di voce — swelling the sound on all long notes, which turns so many off from authentic music groups. A great deal of time had to be taken between each piece for tuning (and in a few numbers, it would have been good had they stopped to do so in between movements) because the instruments slip out of tune at the bat of an eye. And the overall texture was slightly clotted. While it added visual interest to the stage picture, the theorbo (sort of an extra-large lute) was inaudible most of the evening; the continuo was already bottom-heavy with both a cello and double-bass anchoring the harpsichord.

The Stuttgart composers were indeed worthwhile discoveries, in particular a dark, dramatic “Fuga and Grave” by Hasse; driving, catchy material leavened with cool dissonances that sounded like Rameau. Also memorable was a violin concerto by Theile, featuring a “hornepippe” with infectious syncopated rhythms, and a violin and flute concerto by Belitze, whose adagio set forth slow, dour staccato notes from the ensemble underpinning dreamy ariosos from the soloists. Again, the playing was of the highest level throughout, although Matthias Maute’s fingers sometimes got ahead of him on his tiny recorder.

Battey is a freelance writer.

Members of Rebel. (Leif Zurmuhlen)



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