At Katharinenstraße No. 14 in Leipzig there once stood a legendary coffeehouse that was one of the centres of musical activity in Europe. From 1720 on, Gottfried Zimmermann’s café was the venue for performances by the Collegium Musicum, founded by the young Georg Philipp Telemann then a law student at the University of Leipzig. Johann Sebastian Bach continued the tradition, leading premières of many of his secular works there between 1729 and 1739. Concerts were free to the public, and Zimmermann funded his series by selling coffee to audience members. The convivial atmosphere that surrounded the presentation of new works represented a new model of listening for a music-loving bourgeoisie whose only other access to music was at church.
Although the building that housed Zimmermann’s café was destroyed by air raids in 1943, the spirit of Zimmermann’s coffeehouse has been kept alive for the past two decades by the baroque ensemble that bears its name. Café Zimmermann was founded in 1999 by harpsichordist Céline Frisch and violinist Pablo Valetti, both graduates of the prestigious Schola Cantorum in Basel.
To celebrate their twentieth anniversary season, the core chamber ensemble expanded to twenty-one musicians in a gala concert featuring some of Bach’s most celebrated orchestral works. The program opened with a quicksilver interpretation of the Suite no. 1 in C major, BWV 1066, that showcased all the elements of what has become Café Zimmermann’s trademark style: rapid tempi, flawless intonation (particularly in the strings), buoyant phrasing that avoids any trace of pedantry, and a continuo team placed in the centre of the ensemble that drives the momentum from the bass line, often with thrilling crescendi.
The concert continued with three concerti that demonstrated the virtuosity of the musicians, beginning with violinists Valetti and David Plantier, whose perfectly matched expressive approaches made them ideal soloists in the Concerto for 2 Violins in d minor, BWV 1043. In the second and fourth Brandenburg concerti it was the wind players’ turn to shine. Wolfgang Gaisböck delivered an exhilarating rendition of the natural trumpet part in the Concerto no. 2 in F major, BWV 1047. His luminous high notes were well suited to the timbre of the superb alto recorder soloist Michael Form. Form and Isabel Lehmann’s interpretation of the recorder duets in the Concerto no. 4 in G major, BWV 1049 was stunning in every respect, from brilliant and highly rhythmic fast passages in the outer movements to plaintive sighs in the Andante. The concert concluded in festive style with a spirited reading of the Suite no. 3 in D major, BWV 1068. In the famous second movement (Air) Café Zimmermann broke all speed records, with a tempo more than twice as fast as many interpretations from generations past. Their gravity-defying bass line and the almost jaunty ease with which the violins ended the phrases allowed one to hear this music anew, which is no small feat.
Throughout the concert, the frequent unison lines in the first violins and oboes were perfectly aligned, despite the consistently fast tempi. There were some occasional, and perhaps inevitable, balance problems in the vast space of the Sainte-Réparate cathedral in Nice (which celebrated its 320th anniversary this year), particularly at some moments when accompaniments in the strings threatened to cover the melodic lines in the oboes. In general, however, the musicians did a remarkable job of coordinating their entries across the wide stage.
The concert was presented by the association Les Moments Musicaux des Alpes-Maritimes, which is to be commended for cultivating a new and enthusiastic audience for early music on the Côte d’Azur.