Founded in 1985 in Cologne, Germany, Concerto Köln has released more than 50 CDs, everything from Bach and Vivaldi to operas by Gluck and Mozart. Yet Saturday at Emmanuel Church, the ensemble was making its Boston Early Music Festival debut, with a program of concertos by Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann, and Evaristo Felice dall’Abaco. Why it had not previously played in Boston remained as much a mystery after the concert as before.
The premise behind Concerto Köln is that of “cooperative collaboration”; the group operates without a permanent conductor. But there’s no lack of direction in its Berlin Classics recordings of Bach’s Orchestral Suites and Handel’s “Water Music,” which are kinetic, graceful, transparent in texture, and firm in their dance pulse. At Emmanuel, concertmaster Mayumi Hirasaki cued the proceedings with facial gestures, head shakes, and body movement; eye contact among the 14 performers was evident throughout, making “cooperative collaboration” not just a premise but a rewarding reality.
The program began with Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 1 and ended with Telemann’s E-minor concerto for recorder, flute, strings, and continuo. In between came three concertos by Vivaldi and two by dall’Abaco. Concerto Köln has been a champion of lesser-known Baroque composers, and dall’Abaco didn’t suffer by comparison with his better-known contemporaries. Each of his two concertos — Op. 5 No. 3 in E minor and Op. 5 No. 6 in D major — offered a nippy back-and-forth between Hirasaki and second violinist Jörg Buschhaus. (First and second violins were, as they would have been in dall’Abaco’s time, standing opposite each other.) The E-minor concerto featured Cordula Breuer and Marion Moonen in a flute duet; the D-major concerto boasted a creamy cantabile aria, a stately chaconne, and a concluding allegro in which Hirasaki kicked the ensemble into a gallop.
The Handel was the evening’s highlight, with an allegro in which everybody seemed to be jamming, then a relaxed, songful adagio, and then a fugue whose lines were crystal clear. The flutes in dall’Abaco’s Op. 5 No. 3 didn’t register as sharply as they might have, and in general neither did Gerald Hambitzer’s harpsichord, though when you could hear him he was sprightly and never square.
Breuer was a kaleidoscopic mockingbird in the Vivaldi concerto for sopranino recorder; Yves Bertin in the Vivaldi bassoon concerto proved that his woody-toned period instrument could motor as well as croon. The Telemann brought a lovely largo in which recorder and flute duetted over plucked strings, then a presto that suggested a fife-and-drum march. The brief encore was the presto movement from Giovanni Battista Sammartini’s Sinfonia in A major. Like everything else on the program, it had precision but also swing.