Oberlin College’s Kulas Recital Hall can be a dangerous place on a November Sunday afternoon. The lights are dim, the seats are on the cushy side, and the heat just a shade too warm: in other words, a perfect environment for a nap. This, however, was not the case when historical performance ensemble REBEL came to town on the 23rd with their program of 17th and 18th century works. From the first note to the last, the hall was wholly awake.
The ensemble took only an instant to breathe after each movement before joyfully launching into the next one, continually conveying spontaneity without noticeable rough edges. They immediately found the groove of each piece, starting and finishing phrases in perfect time without any trace of stuffiness or stiffness. Endings of movements were also quick and vivacious, eschewing the deep curtseys so common in the codas of Baroque performance. Despite the number of works on the program, the concert lasted only an hour.
Communication within the ensemble was uncannily excellent. Violinists Jorg-Michael Schwarz and Karen Marie Marmer were in sync and in tune, even through the most impossibly frenetic, high runs of Biagio Marini’s Sonata sopra la Monica, Op. 8. Violoncellist John Moran’s back was to harpsichordist Dongsok Shin, but during the wild Allemanda of Corelli’s Sonata, Op. 4, No. 8,they may as well have melded minds.
The ensemble played together on all the pieces except for a performance of Domenico Gabrielli’s Sonate a Violoncello solo from Moran and Shin. Moran’s slow and soft sections flowed, bending the written rhythms without veering into faux-Romantic rubato territory. In faster, louder sections, the sound balance tipped in favor of the harpsichord, and the cello sounded slightly pushed.
Overall, the repertoire choices and performance style favored light and sprightly over heavy and slow. The lightning-fast transition from the second movement Vivace to the third movement Presto of Telemann’s Sonate Corellisante V was a surging rush of masterfully controlled energy. Only in William Boyce’s Sonata V in D did the group’s performance veer towards generic and polite, and the cookie-cutter piece was just as much at fault for that.
Vivaldi’s Sonata Op. 1, 12 ‘La Follia’ starts out as a simple thread of a tune and turns into a bright gem, catching the light in a different way by the moment – a slow waltz, a lively dance, a mad dash. In the home stretch, Marmer and Schwarz traded the melody back and forth so smoothly and seamlessly that the two moving bows on stage were the only indication there were two players instead of one. The program tied up with a winkingly melodramatic, drawn-out final note, and the faces of musicians and audience alike broke into the kind of exuberant smiles more often seen on a returning roller coaster than in Kulas Recital Hall.