Reinhard Goebel, founder of Musica Antiqua Koln, brings 13 members of his band of original instruments, along with a soprano and a contralto, to McCarter Theater for an overwhelmingly sunny program of Italian baroque music on Monday, November 17. Goebel conducts and plays violin in the program which consists of three instrumental works, and three works for voice accompanied by instruments. The centerpiece of the evening is Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s "Stabat Mater." Soprano Nancy Argenta and contralto Nathalie Stutzmann solo.
The other vocal works are Pergolesi’s "Salve Regina" in F minor and Antonio Vivaldi’s "In Forore Gioutissimae Irae." The instrumental works are Antonio Caldara’s "Sinfonia Concertante in C Major," which Goebel calls "the one serious piece" on the program; and two Tommaso Albinoni Sinfonias, one in C major and one in G minor.
Musica Antiqua Koln (MAK) celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. The name of the ensemble is a mix of Latin and German. "Koln" is the German name for Cologne; there should be an umlaut above the "o."
Goebel is an expert in German baroque music. He habitually studies a composition exhaustively to decipher its musical complexities, and its place in history, before programming it. However, his pedantry-defying musicianship is noteworthy for its energy and freshness.
In a telephone interview from his home in north Germany, Goebel explains his selection of only Italian pieces for MAK’s seven-city American tour. He laughs a lot and speaks with exceptional directness. His English is fluent.
Goebel says he rejects German music for the American tour because it is very well known, and, furthermore, that it is tied specifically to the German heritage. "Every important work of German baroque music has been recorded. Besides, German music is overloaded with philosophy and afterthoughts that reflect Protestantism and are not musical. Much of that music is interesting to Europeans because it explains European history. But it’s not important to the United States. It was written before the United States existed."
"On tour in the United States I wanted to bring world heritage music," Goebel says. "Pergolesi’s `Stabat Mater’ is one of the most important works of this type. It’s not too centered in philosophy or words. The `Stabat Mater’ is an operetta for two ladies, with orchestra. It’s a contradiction; Jesus is still on the cross. But it’s not overloaded with lay Protestantism. It shows a new world of music making, a world that says, `Let’s have fun with music.’ Audible enthusiasm looms in Goebel’s inflection.
"There’s only one thing that reflects a little the German style — the two Albinonis," he says. "They were written for the Dresden Court Orchestra in the 1730s. Albinoni knew that the court musicians were highly skilled and would do his music well."
Now 51, Goebel was born in Siegen, Westphalia, where he spent the first 20 years of his life. After 30 years in Cologne and Berlin, he now lives there again. Siegen, Goebel loyally points out, was the birthplace of Peter Paul Rubens, the exuberant baroque Flemish painter, as well as of the musical Busch family.
Goebel’s father was a civil servant who worked for the German railway. His mother was a housewife. The family had four sons, of which only Reinhard became a musician.
"Musicmaking was my desire," Goebel says. "I learned recorder in school. Later I switched to violin. At 12 I decided to become a musician." This youthful decision was greeted by laughter by his first teacher, "but it was not a bad laughing," he says. Already captivated by baroque music, he was not interested in anything written after the 17th century. "Biber was a favorite. I thought that Bach was too modern."
Goebel studied violin at the Cologne Conservatory and the Essen Volkwangschule. He then returned to Cologne University to study musicology. With fellow students at the Cologne Conservatory he founded Musica Antiqua Koln to perform baroque chamber music in 1973. Ten years later the group expanded to form an orchestra. Since 1978 MAK records exclusively for Deutsche Grammophon’s Archiv label.
"MAK focuses on the baroque violin school from 1600-1750, not on classical or romantic music," Goebel says. "The limitation is central to my career. In that field I know everything that’s needed — books, and the musical literature. I love to be a specialist."
MAK uses original instruments, but Goebel believes that the signature verve of the group can be achieved using modern instruments. "With modern instruments, you simply change the phrasing and use less vibrato. A music score has black notes on black lines. But these similar looking notes can be very different. It’s important to consider the context."
Goebel demonstrates. Stiffly and mechanically, he sings a phrase that mounts, and then descends. Next, he sings it with shape and subtlety. I recognize the fragment as the opening theme of the Beethoven Violin Concerto and am surprised; Beethoven wasn’t born until 1770. "How come you’re using the Beethoven Violin Concerto as an example?" I ask. Goebel shoots back, "Beethoven was very baroque. He was educated in Bonn. His teacher [Christian Gottlob] Neefe took as his model Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. The important thing is musical value and the taste behind the lines. The farther back we go, the more is hidden. Modern music has indications about how to play every note. The style of composition changes over the centuries, but performance qualities remain the same. That’s why I stress certain notes, and do soft endings."
Goebel is skeptical about the dogma that characterizes some of today’s search for correctness in baroque musicmaking. "Twentieth century approaches to authenticity are not the only way to play baroque music well," he says. "The listener of today needs to get a correct picture of the baroque. I was born in the town of Rubens. He stands for true life. The baroque is a celebration of human values."
"The baroque is not a dry and stuffy F minor sonata," Goebel says. He bases his antagonism to the key of F minor on physical reality. "The open strings are dead in F minor," he says. "There’s no vibration of the instrument. On the harpsichord, it’s the most difficult key. You have to do a lot to cover the F-minor expression. My expression is D major for its resonance on the violin, for its brightness, and the joy of music making." Curiously, Pergolesi’s "Salve Regina," to be performed at McCarter, is in the key of F-minor. Perhaps it doesn’t stay there long.
By Goebel’s observation, present day audiences do not understand Bach as well as past audiences did. "The problem," he says "is that today people are not very religious; they’re free-thinking. The musical values that Bach gives are always densely connected to Protestantism. They’re word-centered. To understand Bach one must grasp how the words are transcribed in the music."
A strict adherence to Bach’s words is necessary to present the composer’s work properly, Goebel believes. He opposes changing the words of Bach’s St. John’s Passion to soften the anti-semitism of the text. Pointing to a greater sophistication on the eastern side of the Atlantic, he says "That’s an American problem. It’s not a problem in Europe. I say, `People, let’s not be so ridiculous.’ If there’s anger against the Jews in Bach’s text, it doesn’t mean that the listener agrees."
Goebel cites a text that hits closer to home for him."There’s a Bach cantata that I love, Number 18. It’s against the Pope and the Turks. I’m Catholic. Sometimes I have difficulties with this music as a Catholic. But I say, `Let’s forget it."
Goebel’s chief interest is getting on with the music. In the early 1990s the fingers of his left hand, the fingers which press against the fingerboard of the violin to create a desired pitch, lost their ability to move. Remarkably, he maintained his career by learning to play with the roles of the hands reversed.
"It started with finger three, which is known as the most dangerous finger," he says, "and over a period of two months it spread to the other fingers. I stopped playing and went to the doctor, who said that it was dystonia and there was no help."
Goebel lost no time in relearning his instrument. "I took the violin in my other hand immediately, and decided: no more doctors." He reversed the chin rest, the pegs, the strings, and the bridge on the instrument. "I started again like a beginner," he says, "with open strings. Even tuning the instrument was difficult. I went to violin lessons every week with my teacher in Cologne."
"I was 38 or 39, and I never regained my virtuosity. I played reversed quite well, but not artistically. The new way never went deeply into my brain." But Goebel admits to no regrets. "I did so much in my career. I don’t need to be on the top of the list of performers for my whole life. I play at the second desk now."
Goebel’s modesty is noteworthy. Despite his harsh evaluation of his playing violin with hands reversed, he continued to record with MAK after 1992. MAK’s most recent recordings, released in 2002, are "Sinfonia Spirituosa," a collection of string concertos by Georg Philipp Telemann, where Goebel performs as both solo violinist and solo violist; and "Bachiana," a collection of double concertos by members of the Bach family, where Goebel is one of the solo violinists.
Amazingly, by the time he made the most recent recordings Goebel’s dystonia had spontaneously disappeared. For the 2002 CDs, Goebel played some pieces holding the violin conventionally, and some with hands reversed. "Try to guess which is which," he challenges. In the current American tour, he performs for the first time since 1992 holding his violin conventionally.
Musica Antiqua Koln, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, 609-258-2787. Led by conductor and violinist Reinhard Goebel. $31 to $44. Monday, November 17, 8 p.m.