The first and last visit to Taiwan of the one and only Musica Antiqua Koln (Cologne), even without their charismatic leader Reinhard Goebel, is arguably the main event of the coming seven days on Taipei's classical music scene.
I first heard the mysterious sounds of this now-celebrated group in 1989 on an Early Music CD sampler issued by the prestigious Archiv label. They were playing Bach's famous Air from his Suite No: 3 (known as the “air on the G string”) but it had a peculiarly seductive lilt to it, together with the hint of hidden dissonances with the astringency of squeezed lemon. Almost all of this you heard in the leading violin part played, I noted, by the group's leader, Reinhard Goebel.
It can be claimed that Musica Antiqua, founded by Goebel and some classmates from the Cologne Conservatory in 1973, set new standards for the playing of Baroque music. This northern German style, that preceded the Viennese Classical style of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, is now associated with the names Bach, Handel and Telemann but was in fact widespread and flourished for 300 years before expiring in mid-18th century. It was then forgotten for 200 years (with the exception of lonely peaks such as Handel's Messiah and Bach's St Matthew Passion). Only in the 1950s was a revival staged, together the re-creation of the Baroque-era instruments — essential ingredients to its thinner, more laid-back style.
Musica Antiqua, however, represented the second generation of this revival, adding a suave stylishness to what had earlier been a tentative act of academic rediscovery. As a result, they were positively buried in a blizzard of awards and prizes. Then, in 1990, disaster struck.
Goebel developed a strange paralysis in his left hand — paradoxically the more important hand for violin-players as it establishes the notes on the strings, often at lightening speed, while the right arm merely thrusts the bow backwards and forwards. He undertook the horrendous task of re-learning the instrument the other way round, bowing it with his now-afflicted left hand and nimbly skittering about the scales with his right. This worked, up to a point. But now he has sadly decided to call it a day and move over to conducting modern-style orchestras without playing any instrument himself. Musica Antiqua Koln, as if at a loss how to continue without him, has opted to disband at the end of the year.
This, then, is in effect a farewell Far Eastern tour. Goebel won't appear, but five other musicians will offer a program of the sort of music composed to make Europe's princes feel important and sophisticated over four centuries of absolutist rule.
“This is our first visit to Taiwan and we have the impression it's a wonderful place with a great interest in European culture,” said a spokesperson. “It's true the music we play was written for smaller rooms, but we've learnt to adapt it to the world's larger concert halls without compromising the quality of sound or the essential tone-color.”
Entirely different, it's likely to be an innovative production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, opening tonight at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall theater. The work of the Taipei Philharmonic Foundation (TPF), it aims to expand audiences for opera by introducing rock music and traditional Chinese musical elements. The aim is laudable and, given the prestigious status of the TPF, quality is likely to be high. This won't be dumbing-down as much as imaginative re-invention, and with ticket-prices reasonable, it's certainly something to be checked out.