musica Dei donum
Festival Early Music Utrecht 2011
Part One Part Two Part Three
Dufay: Motets 
Cantica Symphonia/Giuseppe Maletto
August 27, St Catharina Cathedral
Victoria: "Ad Vesperas" 
August 27, Geertekerk
"Musical highlights in the Sistine Chapel" 
The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
August 27, Cathedral [Dom]
"The Torrefranca 250 manuscript" 
La Chimera/Eduardo Egüez
August 27, Pieterskerk
Palestrina: Missa Aspice Domine 
August 29, Pieterskerk
"Musica Sacra a Roma" 
Concerto Italiano/Rinaldo Alessandrini
August 29, Cathedral [Dom]
Marenzio: Madrigals 
La Compagnia del Madrigale/Giuseppe Maletto
August 29, Geertekerk
Palestrina, Lassus, Arcadelt, de Macque: Madrigals 
La Compagnia del Madrigale/Giuseppe Maletto
August 30, Geertekerk
The 30th edition of the Festival Early Music Utrecht takes place under the dark skies of the financial crisis. Because of this cutbacks in government subsidies are to be expected. And as the present Dutch government has a rather negative attitude towards the arts this sector of society will be especially affected. Fortunately the early music lovers haven't cut back their expenditures: ticket sales have risen in comparison to last year. There is every reason to visit the festival. The theme is "Roma - città eterna" (Rome, the eternal city). The choice of a city as the festival's subject opens the possibility to present a wide range of repertoire, going from the Middle Ages to the mid-18th century. This way the lovers of medieval and renaissance music - the "real" early music, as they think - are also served, unlike in recent years.
The first night was also devoted to medieval music. But whether the lovers of this kind of music were really pleased by the performances of the ensemble Graindelavoix and the modern dance of Rosas is highly questionable. The combination of early and contemporary - even in music alone - doesn't sound very attractive to me, and as I know nothing about dance I decided not to go. That seems to have been a good decision as several people left the venue during the performance.
They will have enjoyed the concert by Cantica Symphonia  on Saturday a lot more. Giuseppe Maletto has recorded the complete motets with his ensemble, and for this concert he made a nice choice from this part of Dufay's oeuvre. Especially intriguing are the isorhythmic motets which were given outstanding performances. One of the features of the interpretations of Cantica Symphonia is the use of instruments. This was quite common in the 1970s and 1980s, but later on there was a general preference for performances with voices only. The pendulum seems to swing back as instruments are turning up regularly in performances of renaissance polyphony. But they are used with more consideration: the application of instruments is more moderate and is more closely connected to the circumstances of the first performances. Even so, this practice remains controversial. Cantica Symphonia defended its approach with conviction, and made an inventive use of the space, like the placement of trumpet and sackbut at the organ loft in the last item of the programme.
Dufay is a composer at the brink of the Middle Ages and the renaissance. With Tomás Luis de Victoria and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina we move to the very end of the renaissance. It may seem a little odd that music by Victoria was performed during a festival devoted to Rome. But Victoria has studied in Rome, and also worked there for some time. La Colombina  presented Vesper music which was never printed. The manuscript was discovered in the 1970s but only fairly recently Victoria's authorship could be established. La Colombina has recorded this music (review) and made a choice from the material for this concert. The Psalms and the Magnificat were preceded by the appropriate antiphon in plainchant and followed by a motet by Victoria. The plainchant wasn't quite satisfying because of the unpleasantly sharp edges in the voice of the tenor Josep Benet, whose intonations were sometimes a bit insecure. The Psalms and the Magnificat are alternatim settings and here the plainchant verses also suffered from the contributions of Benet. Otherwise the performances were impressive. The approach of La Colombina is rather introverted and guarantees a highly subtle and refined interpretation of the repertoire. The acoustic of the Geertekerk suits them well, although a little more reverberation wouldn't have been amiss.
Palestrina is one of the main composers in this year's festival. His music is sometimes considered rather boring, and the festival's director, Xavier Vandamme, hopes the performances in the festival are going to change that view. He expects the subtleties of Palestrina's music to be revealed. It seems unlikely the performances of The Sixteen, directed by Harry Christophers , will have contributed to that objective. They weren't boring, but definitely not subtle either. In particular in regard to dynamics the interpretation was unsatisfying: the eruptions of sound were rather tiring and also superfluous considering the amount of reverberation in the Cathedral. Christophers certainly didn't offer a new perspective on Palestrina's music. That was probably to be expected as he is no real early music specialist and The Sixteen sing a wide range of repertoire. Especially surprising was the performance of Allegri's famous Miserere: it was performed in the well-known version, perhaps because Christophers thought that is what everyone wants to hear. But it is a 19th-century arrangement which has little to do with what Allegri has written down. It is particularly odd - and in fact unacceptable - that this 'forgery' is performed in a festival which is devoted to early music and based on the principles of historical performance practice.
The performances of Alamire, under the direction of David Skinner , were more convincing. From the vast repertoire of masses by Palestrina they presented one of the least-known, the Missa Aspice Domine which is based on a motet by Jacquet de Mantua, which preceded the mass. The concert opened and closed with two motets by Palestrina, Sicut lilium inter spinas en O beata et gloriosa Trinitas. Although it is questionable whether the Anglo-saxon vocal esthetics are really suited for this repertoire the interpretation was much more subtle than The Sixteen's. That was also due to the smaller size of the ensemble (12 to 18) and a better use of the church's acoustics. In the opening motet I sometimes found the singing too loud, but dynamics were more satisfying later on. There were passages for reduced forces in the mass and Mantua's motet was sung with one voice per part. Here the ensemble excelled in a beautiful sound production and a nice shaping of the musical phrases. All in all, this was a good contribution to the exploration of Palestrina's oeuvre.
Because the large music hall in Utrecht is reconstructed and its temporary substitute is a bit far outside the town centre most evening concerts take place in churches. That serves the music well, for instance the repertoire which was performed by Concerto Italiano, directed by Rinaldo Alessandrini . Two of the composers on the programme are hardly known: Alessandro Melani and Stefano Fabri. Alessandrini devoted a whole disc to the oeuvre of Melani which was released last year and which I considered one of the best discs of 2010 (review). The reason wasn't just the performances of Concerto Italiano - one of the best ensembles in the business anyway - but also the music of Melani which reveals that he is a truly great composer. One of the highlights of that disc, the Litanie per la beata Vergine, opened the programme. It attracts attention because of its daring harmony and frequent dissonances. There is a lot of text expression in this piece, and that is also the case in the two motets which followed. Next two Psalm settings by Stefano Fabri were sung, also well worth to be performed. The second half of the programme was devoted to one work, the Stabat mater for 10 voices and bc by Domenico Scarlatti. In this piece - like in Melani and Fabri - all voices are treated on equal footing, according to the rules of the stile antico, but at the same time the composers make use of the contemporary means of text expression. All these pieces contain passages for reduced forces. It is therefore important that all singers are able to sing solo parts. And that is one of the qualities of Concerto Italiano. The singers are soloists and their voices have a colour and character of their own. But Alessandrini manages to weld them together to a unity. This resulted in impressive performances. The singers used the acoustical characteristics of the large church quite well: even when they sang forte they never strained themselves and the sound was always crisp and clear. This concert was definitely one of the highlights of the festival.
In its early days Concerto Italiano devoted itself mostly to madrigals. That was the kind of repertoire it sang during its debut at the festival in 1993. But since then its repertoire has widened, and today it seldom sings madrigals. One of ensemble's singers in its early years is the tenor Giuseppe Maletto who regrets that there are so few ensembles nowadays who devote their energy to this repertoire. Therefore he founded his own madrigal ensemble, La Compagnia del Madrigale. With this ensemble he performed madrigals by Luca Marenzio , one of the last representatives of the polyphonic madrigal. Maletto had made a nice selection from the large oeuvre by Marenzio in which various aspects of his madrigal style came to the fore. La Compagnia del Madrigale gave fine performances which resulted in a compelling concert. Although the voices blended well, the sopranos were sometimes a bit too dominant. I also had some reservations in regard to the use of dynamics - sometimes the singing was a little too loud. The highlight was the last item, Baci soavi e cari, an intimate piece which was sung with great subtlety and sensitivity.
One day later the same ensemble performed a programme which concentrated on the madrigals of Palestrina . He is mainly known as the composer of religious music, but he also contributed to the genre of the madrigal. Some have become quite famous, although mainly thanks to the numerous instrumental arrangements by other composers. The two best-known were performed: Io son ferito, ahi lasso and Vestiva i colli, alongside 11 other madrigals of various character. The concert made clear that Palestrina's madrigals are unjustly neglected and are not inferior to the madrigals of composers like Arcadelt and Lassus, who were also represented in the programme. In addition the ensemble performed madrigals by lesser-known composers like Philippe Verdelot, Giovanni de Macque and Giovanni Marina Nanino. The ensemble was in excellent form, and the little problems I noticed in the previous concert were absent here. The balance within the ensemble was perfect and so was the blending of the voices. La Compagnia del Madrigale is definitely an ensemble to keep an eye on.
In the early 17th century the monodic style emerged. This strongly influenced the development of the madrigal and also led to a large number of songs and arias for solo voice and basso continuo. This genre gave the opportunity to singers to shine and make a name for themselves. We know some of the singers who scored triumphs as interpreters of this kind of repertoire. Some accompanied themselves on a plucked instrument or the harp. One of these was Adriana Basile, one of the most celebrated singers of Rome in the first half of the 17th century. La Chimera, directed by Eduardo Egüez, presented some of the music she has sang or at least must have known, collected in the so-called Torrefranca 250 manuscript . On the programme were pieces by Giulio and Francesca Caccini, Marco da Gagliano, Stefano Landi and Ottavio Catalani were sung by Monica Piccinini. She is one of the members of Concerto Italiano, and therefore one may expect her to be well suited for this repertoire. She didn't disappoint as she gave eloquent interpretations of the various solo arias. Her voice is very clear and agile which is absolutely necessary in repertoire in which the text is predominant. That said there was too little variety in her performances, also in regard to ornamentation. The manuscript also contains Monteverdi's Lamento d'Arianna and this was the main disappointment of the concert. There was a lack of drama; the most intense passages were too flat. Here in particular more declamation would have been needed. That doesn't diminish my appreciation of her performances in which she was given fine support by Sabina Colonna Preti (viola da gamba), Giovanna Pessi (arpa tripla) and Eduardo Egüez (lute).
Corelli: "Around Corelli's Opus 1" 
La Dolcezza/Veronika Skuplik
August 29, Geertekerk
"Barefoot from Rome to Prague" 
Schola Gregoriana Pragensis/David Eben
August 30, St. Willibrordkerk
"The Wunderkammer of Roman polyphony" 
August 30, Pieterskerk
"Urbi et Orbi: Ars nova in Rome" 
Mala Punica/Pedro Memelsdorff
August 30, Cathedral [Dom]
Corelli: "Around Corelli's Opus 3" 
Ensemble Aurora/Enrico Gatti
August 31, Geertekerk
Palestrina: Missa De Beata Virgine, Marian motets 
Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera/Diego Fasolis
August 31, Pieterskerk
Frescobaldi: Missa La Monica 
Concerto Palatino/Bruce Dickey
August 31, Jacobikerk
"Palestrina, pupils & successors: madrigals" 
Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam/Harry van der Kamp
August 31, Geertekerk
Two composers are given special attention in this festival: Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Arcangelo Corelli. They both played a crucial role in the history of music, and both have a reputation which isn't entirely positive. One of the objectives of the festival is to put that right, and in particular to shed a new light on Palestrina. To that end in almost all concerts the performers make use of a new edition of his works which is in the process of appearing. I have already reviewed two of the concerts devoted to sacred polyphony by Palestrina. So far I couldn't discover anything really new in the performance of his music. That was different in the concert by Graindelavoix under the direction of Björn Schmelzer . In his approach he wants to pay tribute to the various styles of singing which he believes were practised in Rome. This means that 'classical' voices are combined with voices which have their roots in traditional music. So far it is mainly secular music which he has approached this way. This is controversial in itself, it is even more so in Palestrina's music, and in my view utterly unconvincing. So far I haven't read a single plausible argument in favour of this approach. And I just can't believe that this mishmash of sounds, some of which remind me of the things you hear in a zoo, were practised and appreciated in the Sistine Chapel, where the Missa Papae Marcelli was sung, which Graindelavoix performed. It was presented as part of a mass for Easter, with the appropriate plainchant and some additional motets by Palestrina. The performance of the plainchant was even worse than Palestrina. A new approach to his music is fine, but the way Graindelavoix looks at it is without historical foundation and therefore a dead end.
Maybe the approach by Diego Fasolis is a better way to look at Palestrina's music. In the previews much was made about his recording of Palestrina's complete works, whose first volume has just been released. Therefore I was looking forward to the concert by the Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera  under Fasolis' direction, the same choir he uses for his recordings. The Missa De Beata Virgine was given a fine performance, together with some Marian motets. The sections of the mass were interspersed by some ricercari for organ. There is no doubt this choir is very good, probably not surprising considering that among its members are singers who are well-known from the Italian early-music scene, like Rossana Bertini, Raffaele Giordani, Giuseppe Maletto, Marco Scavazza and Walter Testolin. But I have my doubts whether a choir of 19 singers with the traditional SATB scoring is the most appropriate ensemble to sing Palestrina's religious music. It could well be that the kind of performances which the Cappella Pratensis practised in its early days is more suited: a group of singers standing around one choirbook, listening and adapting their singing to each other, directed by one of them. And the use of male voices for the upper parts seems not impossible as nowadays there are several singers with a high tessitura. I am looking forward to listening to the first volume of the recording, but so far I am not convinced this is the best way to perform Palestrina.
Palestrina also showed up in a concert by Concerto Palatino, directed by Bruce Dickey . It was devoted to the Missa La Monica by Frescobaldi which was performed in the second half. The first half opened and closed with motets by Palestrina, in which the singers were accompanied by instruments. Instruments also participated in the performances of Graindelavoix, but in that case their use was difficult to justify as Palestrina was performed as Schmelzer pretended it was sung and played in his own time. But there is little evidence, if any, that Palestrina made use of instruments. Concerto Palatino performed Palestrina in the context of Frescobaldi's time, and here the use of instruments seems much more plausible. The song on which Frescobaldi based his mass was performed in the first half, and also Frescobaldi's Partite sopra la Monica. In addition some vocal and instrumental pieces by Frescobaldi were performed. The sections of the mass were interspersed by instrumental pieces and one motet, and the concert ended with another motet by Palestrina. The performances by singers and players of Concerto Palatino were impressive, and the acoustic of the Jacobikerk suited them well. Bruce Dickey himself proved once again that he is the true master of the cornett, in particular in his own diminutions of Palestrina's motet Nigra sum.
The second concert of La Compagnia del Madrigale was devoted to madrigals by Palestrina and his contemporaries . Palestrina was also the starting point of the programme of the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam, directed by Harry van der Kamp . He had selected madrigals by pupils and successors of Palestrina, among them some uncommon names like Ruggiero Giovanelli, Antonio Cifra en Lodovico Cenci. In addition we heard pieces by Nanino, Marenzio, Frescobaldi, d'India, Michelangelo Rossi and Mazzocchi. Some of these contain a rather graphical depiction of the affetti. One can leave it to Harry van der Kamp and his colleagues to make the most of that. The ensemble, the colouring of the voices and dynamics are all instrumental to a clear expression of the madrigals' content. The Gesualdo Consort often comes up with highly unusual compositions, and that wasn't any different this time. The last piece was a good example, the quite bizarre Cadea dal alto ciel by Lodovico Cenci. As far as musical quality is concerned the madrigals by the likes of d'India and Rossi are of a higher level, and were given incisive performances. Pieter-Jan Belder contributed some keyboard pieces by Frescobaldi and two madrigal transcriptions from the tablature of Bernhard Schmid the younger (1607). These pieces were no breathing spaces, but showed the strong connection between various genres, in this case the madrigal and keyboard music.
As I wrote this year's theme gives the opportunity to programme really 'early music', which its lovers have sorely missed in recent years. The Schola Gregoriana Pragensis, directed by David Eben , performed a programme of religious music under the title "Barefoot from Rome to Prague". The central figure was Saint Adalbert of Prague who at the end of the 10th century fled to Rome, but was immediately sent back, accompanied by a group of monks. Here is the link with Rome, because these monks took their own music with them. We heard chants from various traditions: the Old Roman, the Ambrosian, the Old Spanish and the Gallican, resulting in what we now know as 'Gregorian chant', which was referred to in the programme as the 'Roman-Franco synthesis'. Most chants were monophonic, although there were some for two voices, and the programme ended with the polyphonic Presulem ephebeatum by Petrus Wilhelmi de Grudencz. It was the fascinating ending of an enthralling event. The clarity and power of the eight male voices of this Schola came off brilliantly in the large reverberation of the St Willibrordkerk.
Mala Punica is a specialist in early repertoire. Its concert in the Cathedral was entitled "Urbi et Orbi: Ars nova in Rome" . The repertoire, by composers like Johannes Ciconia, Antonio Zacara di Teramo and Mattheus de Sancto Johanne, is very complicated, in particular rhythmically, and requires a perfect singing and playing technique. There is no lack of it in Mala Punica: the performances of singers and players was highly impressive. But any interpretation of this kind of repertoire is bound to be controversial as we don't know that much about how the music was performed at the time of composition. The concert raised all kind of questions in regard to tempo, singing technique, dynamics and the use of instruments. The ensemble and its director Pedro Memelsdorff defended their approach convincingly.
Not only Palestrina, but also Corelli is what one could call composer in residence of this year's festival. Four ensembles bring selections from his four collections of trio sonatas, and the series is concluded with sonatas from his opus 5. The ensemble La Dolcezza, directed by violinist Veronika Skuplik - one of the artists in residence - started off with sonatas from the opus 1 . The name of the ensemble reflects its artistic credo: the violin has to sound "sweet". That is not another word for "boring" as the ensemble's performances proved. As Corelli avoids extreme contrasts and strong dramatic effects everything comes down to an expression of the affetti, and Ms Skuplik and her colleagues did just that. Greater contrasts are present in the sonatas by Purcell and Rosenmüller which were added to the programme: influenced by Corelli, but at the same time following their own path. The contrasts came off well and the harmonic idiosyncracies of Purcell's sonatas were explored to the full.
The opus 2 was the subject of the concert by Gli Incogniti which I couldn't attend. Sonatas from the opus 3 were performed by the Ensemble Aurora, directed by Enrico Gatti . They have recorded Corelli's complete trio sonatas, so they know them through and through. They underline the contrasts and the dramatic elements which are less pronounced in Corelli's music than that of some of his contemporaries, but certainly not absent. Enrico Gatti and his colleagues performed the sonatas with zest and flair, with quite strong dynamic contrasts. Interesting were the composers who were also included: Carlo Ambrogio Lonati, Carlo Mannelli and Alessandro Stradella. These are interesting composers who deserve much more attention.
Frescobaldi, Froberger, L Rossi 
Laurent Stewart, harpsichord
August 29, Lutheran Church
"Frescobaldi and Rome: a revolution in keyboard music" 
Jean-Marc Aymes, harpsichord
August 31, Lutheran Church
"Frescobaldi and the German connection" 
Magdalena Malec, harpsichord, organ
Sept 1, Nicolaïkerk
"Around Corelli's Opus 4" 
Holland Baroque Society
Sept 1, Geertekerk
Palestrina: Missa Salvum me fac Domine 
Odhecaton/Paolo Da Col
Sept 1, Pieterskerk
Caldara: "Caldara in Rome" 
Solisti e Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera/Diego Fasolis
Sept 1, Jacobikerk
"Roma - Venezia" 
Cappella Mediterranea/Leonardo García-Alarcón
Sept 1, Geertekerk
"Frescobaldi and the Neapolitan connection" 
Francesco Corti, harpsichord
Sept 2, Lutheran Church
"Around Corelli's Opus 5" 
Monica Huggett and Friends
Sept 2, Geertekerk
"Easter in the Sistine Chapel" 
The Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice
Sept 2, Pieterskerk
"Around Corelli's Opus 6" 
Maria Keohane, soprano
Concerto Copenhagen/Lars Ulrik Mortensen
Sept 2, Vredenburg Leidsche Rijn
Quagliati: "La Sfera Armoniosa, Rome 1623" 
Emanuela Galli, Paolo López, soprano
La Sfera Armoniosa/Mike Fentross
Sept 2, Geertekerk
"Music between the Councils of Konstanz and Basel" 
Sept 3, Lutheran Church
A Scarlatti: Serenata Flora Pellegrina 
Sabine Devieilhe, soprano; Antonio Giovannini, alto
B'Rock/Eduardo López Banzo
Sept 3, St. Augustinuskerk
"Multiplicity in Rome: life before and after Palestrina" 
Huelgas Ensemble/Paul Van Nevel
Sept 3, Cathedral [Dom]
In a festival which is devoted to Rome keyboard music has to be given much attention. Girolamo Frescobaldi was the dominating figure, who attracted many pupils from all over Europe. He was at the centre of a series of recitals, in which his music was put into the context of his time: his predecessors, his contemporaries and his pupils. The presence of two historical keyboard instruments, labelled as instruments in residence considerably added to the attraction of this part of the programme. One was a harpsichord by an anonymous builder from between 1720 and 1740. Because of the fragility of the instrument parts of several recitals were performed at a copy of a Ruckers harpsichord. The second instrument was an organ, built by Carlo Russo in 1713.
The Ruckers copy was particularly suited for the second part of Laurent Stewart's recital  which was devoted to pieces by Froberger who - thanks to his friendship with Louis Couperin - was influenced by the French style as well, and by Luigi Rossi, whose Passacaille was likely written during his stay in France, where his opera Orfeo was performed. In the first half Stewart played music by Frescobaldi, two toccatas, a balletto and the Partite sopra l'aria di Romanesca. Stewart gave fine performances, although in the Partite the tension tended to wane a little now and then, mainly because of too long pauses between some variations. Surprisingly the second half of the Lamento sopra la dolorosa perdita della Real Mstà di Ferdinando IV from Froberger's Suite in C was repeated. This ends with a rising scale which is generally interpreted as a depiction of Ferdinand's rise into heaven, and that makes a repetition of this phrase a bit odd.
Jean-Marc Aymes  paid attention to Frescobaldi and his followers Froberger and Michelangelo Rossi, but also the sources of his inspiration, Giovanni de Macque and Luzzasco Luzzaschi. The latter didn't compose any keyboard music, but his madrigals inspired Frescobaldi in his keyboard music. Aymes played a transcription of one of his madrigals. Also represented was Ercole Pasquini, whose keyboard music shows strong similarities with Frescobaldi's. Aymes showed himself a passionate performer who gave engaging interpretations. One of the highlights was the Partite sopra Ruggiero, although unfortunately only eight of the variations were played.
The Polish keyboard player Magdalena Malec  played both harpsichord and organ in a programme of Frescobaldi and his German followers. Froberger was his pupil, but another South-German master, Johann Caspar Kerll, was also strongly influenced by him. He was in Rome, when Frescobaldi had already died. Ms Malec started off with pieces by Frescobaldi, played at the historical organ. The first notes of the first piece immediately demonstrated the unique character of the organ which isn't comparable to any historical organ in the Netherlands. And a piece like the Toccata III per l’elevazione is simply impossible to play on any other organ than an Italian instrument. The meantone temperament was also instrumental in revealing the expression in Frescobaldi's music. As an organist and as a harpsichordist Ms Malec brought excellent performances. Froberger's Toccata in a minor was particularly engrossing. There was only one minus: the harpsichord is not very suited to be played in a church. Too many details were lost in the large space.
Jean-Marc Aymes played some pieces by De Macque, and so did Francesco Corti  whose programme was entitled "Frescobaldi and the Neapolitan connection". He started with the Ricercata del tono primo by Palestrina, written in the same strict polyphonic style as his sacred music. After that De Macque's Capriccio sopra re fa mi sol came as quite a shock, because of its exuberance, its virtuosity and the daring harmonies. In his recital Corti sensibly alternated between such experimental pieces and more conventional gagliardas. The most bizarre piece was definitely the Canzon franzese del Principe by Gesualdo. Frescobaldi may have been influenced by it, but never went as far. Nor did Michelangelo Rossi, although he wasn't afraid of experiments himself. Corti played his Toccata III. He ended his recital with a brilliant performance of Frescobaldi's Cento partite sopra Passacagli. His fast tempi may raise some questions, but there certainly was no lack of drama here.
The second key composer in this year's festival was Arcangelo Corelli. His five collections with sonatas were played during afternoon concerts in the Geertekerk, which is particularly suited to this repertoire because of its acoustics. In the last concert of the four which were devoted to the trio sonatas members of the Holland Baroque Society  played sonatas from his opus 4, which are sonate da camera, whose movements are mainly referring to dances. Otherwise there is no fundamental difference with the sonate da chiesa. The two violinists, Lidewij van der Voort and Judith Steenbrink, gave very lively and engaging performances of four sonatas from this opus, as well as a sonata which has been published posthumously. In addition we heard two sonatas by Pietro Antonio Locatelli, and here we are living in another world, as his sonatas are much more virtuosic, and are characterised by capriciousness and a very personal kind of creativity. These were also very well performed. The rhythmic drive of the continuo section - Tomasz Pokrzywinski (cello), Daniele Caminiti (theorbo) and Judith Steenbrink (harpsichord) - was of great help to bring out the features of Corelli's and Locatelli's sonatas.
Whenever one gets the opportunity to hear Monica Huggett, one of the masters of the baroque violin, one shouldn't miss it. She was invited to play sonatas from Corelli's opus 5 , twelve sonatas for violin and basso continuo, which paved the way for the virtuosity of the likes of Locatelli and Leclair. Ms Huggett has always been an expressive player who dug deep to explore the music to the full. It turned out that the splendour hasn't gone out of her playing at all. She provided colourful performances, full of contrast and drama, and technically at a high level. It was just unfortunate that one of the strings of her violin broke just before she wanted to end the concert with the variations on La Folia. It took a while before the new string had settled, and that damaged her performance a little. But even so her playing was impressive. She was accompanied by her friends who also played solos: James Johnstone a toccata for harpsichord by Ercole Pasquini, Elizabeth Kenny a beautiful ciacona by Giovanni Zamboni Romano and Joseph Crouch a remarkable cello sonata by Nicola Francesco Haym.
The Corelli series ended with the concerti grossi opus 6, played by Concerto Copenhagen, directed by Lars Ulrik Mortensen . Even though these concerti grossi belong to Corelli's best-known music, it was disappointing that only two of the twelve concerti were played. In addition we heard two concerti grossi by Georg Muffat, one of the main representatives of the goûts réunis. As Corelli did know Handel and played in his orchestra during the performance of Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno it made sense to add arias from this oratorio to the programme, in particular as Handel was almost completely ignored during the festival. The soloist was the Swedish soprano Maria Keohane, who also sang the cantata Ah crudel, nel pianto mio. Her performances were a bit disappointing. She has a very nice voice, and I have enjoyed her singing in sacred music in several concerts I have heard at the radio, but she seems not to have the theatrical instincts to make the most of the pieces she had to sing. She was mostly singing from behind the orchestra, and that was unfortunate, because she doesn't have much volume and also because of the rather uncomfortable acoustical circumstances in the concert hall. The last item, the aria 'Tu del ciel', from Il trionfo, came off best, and not surprisingly as she sang here in front of the orchestra. This aria has a brilliant solo part for the violin, originally meant to be played by Corelli, and here excellently played by a member of the orchestra (probably Fredrik From). Concerto Copenhagen also has a great oboist in its ranks: Antoine Torunczyk, who gave an outstanding performance of the solo part in the aria 'Io sperai trovar nel vero', with beautiful ornamentation. The concertos were given sparkling performances by the orchestra. Surprisingly the oboes and bassoons were participating in the performance of Corelli's Concerto grosso No 4 in D. I know an edition for strings and wind exists, but as far as I know this isn't authentic. There wasn't a word about it in the programme book.
In the series with madrigals the Cappella Mediterranea , directed by Leonardo García-Alarcón, marked the shift from the polyphonic madrigal to the monody. It started with a madrigal from Monteverdi's fourth book, followed by Caccini's most famous aria, Amarilli, mia bella, merged with instrumental variations by Peter Philips. Two madrigals with a basso continuo part by Marco Scacchi and Domenico Mazzocchi followed. Then we heard some cantatas for solo voice by Luigi Rossi and Barbara Strozzi. The last part of the concert was devoted to extracts from operas by Monteverdi and Luigi Rossi (both from their respective Orfeo's) and by Giuseppe Zamponi. Mariana Flores made a good impression in Che si puo fare by Strozzi, but was a bit disappointing in 'Lasciate Averno' from Rossi's Orfeo. Fernando Guimarães gave a good account of 'Questi campi di traccia' from Monteverdi's Orfeo. The cantata and opera parts of the concert were more convincing than the madrigal section, in which the blending of the voices was less than ideal. Leonardo García-Alarcón accompanied the madrigals at the organ which seems rather odd.
The last concert in this series I heard, by La Sfera Armoniosa , directed by Mike Fentross, followed on the same course by performing solos and duets from the collection from which the ensemble has taken its name, written by Paolo Quagliati, and printed in Rome in 1623. All pieces are for solo voice(s) and basso continuo, some with an additional violin. The soloists were Emanuela Galli and Paolo López. I have heard them before, and enjoyed their performances. This time I was less impressed. Their voices didn't really match, in particular as Ms Galli used quite a lot of vibrato. She also sang mostly too loud, and in particular in the quite intimate acoustic of the Geertekerk this is rather counterproductive. I haven't often heard male sopranos who impressed me, but I was pleased when some time ago I heard Paolo López in Le disgrazie d'Amore by Antonio Cesti. In this concert he couldn't live up to my expectations. He seemed to have problems with hitting the top notes, and that resulted in chopped up phrasings, awkward ornamentation and intonation problems. And all those texts about unhappy love were a bit too much after a while.
Like I wrote the theme of this year's festival allowed the programming of medieval and renaissance music. On the last Saturday the ensemble Tetraktys  presented a programme of music which was composed before Dufay or in the early stages of his career. The connection to the festival's theme was rather obscure. The connection probably goes via Dufay or - considering the reference to two councils in the programme's title - through the papacy. But in that case so many more music could be connected to Rome. Whatever the connection may have been, the music by Gautier Libert, Johannes Simon de Haspre, Johannes Le Grant, Franchois Lebertoul, Gilet Velut, Mahieu Paullet and someone with the name of Adam was of excellent quality, both musically and textually. With the ballade and the rondeau two of the main forms of secular music of the late Middle Ages were represented. It is refined music which requires an excellent singing and playing technique. There was no lack of it in the ensemble. With Zsuzsi Tòth and Carlos Mena they have two fine singers whose voices are excellently suited to this repertoire. That goes in particular for the former, whereas the latter's voice was sometimes a bit too loud. In his contributions the text wasn't always easy to understand. But overall this was a nice concert, in which flute, fiddles and harp were used to support the singers.
Antonio Caldara spent the largest part of his career in Vienna, at the service of the imperial court. Here he developed into one of Europe's most celebrated composers of oratorios and operas. Earlier he worked in Rome, and three of his religious works from this period were performed by soloists and choir of Radiotelevisione Svizzera under the direction of Diego Fasolis . The programme opened with the Sinfonia Santa Francesca and continued with two psalm settings, Laetatus sum and Confitebor tibi Domine. After the interval the only work was the Gloria in B flat. These three works are for solo voices, double choir and orchestra, and contain many remarkable features. The solos are often virtuosic arias which reflect Caldara's talent as an opera composer. There are also some extended solo parts for instruments, in particular the violin and the oboe. And Confitebor tibi Domine contains a surprising passage in pure stile antico in which the choir sings a cappella. On the whole the interpretation was admirable. The soloists - their names were not mentioned in the programme book - were mostly very good, in particular the soprano who sang the virtuosic solo part in Confitebor tibi Domine, but the contralto's voice in Laetatus sum was a bit too weak. The soloists were standing behind the orchestra, which was logistically most obvious as they were members of the choir, but acoustically less than ideal. The instrumental solos were admirably executed; the natural horns went repeatedly off the road, though. The choral sections were well sung, but often too massive. I would have liked a more distinctive approach, in particular in regard to dynamics. That probably would have made it easier to hear the text. Even so, it is nice that Caldara's music was presented to the audience, in particular as the composer is not that well-known.
Alessandro Scarlatti played an important part in the Roman music scene. His music hardly figured in this year's programme; it was thanks to Eduardo López Banzo, who directed the Belgian baroque orchestra B'Rock , that one of his compositions was performed, the serenata Flora Pellegrina. It was preceded by some arias from other works and a concerto grosso. The two soloists, Sabine Devieilhe and Antonio Giovannini, were both in excellent form. The former is a true operatic talent with a strong voice. She had to hold back a little in the duets, in order not to overpower Giovannini, who has a nice voice with many possibilities which is still a bit too weak. Together they delivered fine performances of the vocal parts, whereas B'Rock gave an energetic account of the orchestral score.
Lastly, I return to Palestrina. Odhecaton , directed by Paolo Da Col, performed his Missa Salvum me fac Domine, based on a motet by Jacquet de Mantua, which preceded the mass. In addition we heard some motets by Palestrina and a motet by Nanino. On the basis of its line-up - five altos, three tenors, one baritone and two basses - this ensemble was probably best suited to perform Palestrina's music. But the size of the various voice groups also shows its main problem: the dominance of the upper voices. Technically the performances were not perfect, because of some shaky entries and intonation problems. The beauty of Palestrina's music came off well, but the text far less so: most of it was almost inaudible. This is a feature I have noticed in many performances of polyphony over the years. Sure, the text doesn't have the same weight as in music of the early baroque. But one of the aims of the Council of Trent was that in religious music the text should be audible. Therefore it is important that this aspect is given more attention.
The performances of The Brabant Ensemble , directed by Stephen Rice, were better in this respect. They performed the Missa Ad coenam agni providi which is based on a hymn which has also been set by Dufay; this setting opened the concert. In addition settings of the antiphon Regina coeli by Johannes Beausseron, Cristóbal de Morales and Palestrina were sung. The latter's setting is for 8-part double choir, and so is his Easter motet Surrexit pastor bonus. The biography of the ensemble in the programme book told us that the ensemble pays more attention to expression than its predecessors. In this concert I haven't heard much of that. Everything was nicely sung, but I don't think there was anything which would give reason to someone who believes Palestrina's music is boring to change his mind.
The only performance in this festival which may achieve that seems to be the Huelgas Ensemble , directed by Paul Van Nevel. Only one work by Palestrina was performed in their concert, the Missa Ut re mi fa sol la for 6 voices. There was no Credo; the programme book didn't tell whether this was because Van Nevel decided to drop it or whether Palestrina didn't compose it. Among the features of the Huelgas Ensemble are its unity and its flexibility. The singers usually stand in a circle and listen to each other and adapt their singing to each other. During the programme the line-up changed from one piece to the other, creating the greatest possible unity and the best possible balance for every single piece. The transparency of the ensemble is another important feature which allows the audience to hear every single line and to hear the text. This is also due to a good diction and to the good balance between the various voice groups. The sound of the Huelgas Ensemble is considerably warmer and more expressive than in particular British ensembles. I was especially impressed by the treatment of dynamics. If other ensembles sing some passages forte, these often sound massive and obtrusive, but here the dynamic contrasts are very natural, they come and go. The performance of Palestrina's mass was exemplary. The concert started with five laude, relatively simple homophonic chants on Italian texts, and in the second part we heard music in the style of Palestrina by Felice Anerio, Agostino Agazzari and Giovanni Bacilieri. It was only in the last pieces, three madrigals by Michelangelo Rossi, that the stile nuovo manifested itself. Whether the music was simple as the laude or more complicated, especially harmonically, like Rossi's madrigals, the performances were outstanding. It was a most impressive concert and one of the highlights of this year's festival.
Other highlights were the performances of Concerto Italiano and Concerto Palatino. The fact that I single them out doesn't mean other performances were mediocre. One of the features of this 30th edition of the Festival Early Music Utrecht was the generally high level of the performances. Economically it was a great success as well, as the ticket sales rose by 20 percent in comparison to last year. The present director, Xavier Vandamme, has managed to strengthen the festival's market position without compromising its artistic standard. That in itself is a great achievement.
Next year the theme will be "From Sweelinck to Bach", and artist in residence Masaaki Suzuki.
Johan van Veen (© 2011)
Top of page