musica Dei donum
Festival Early Music Utrecht 2015
Part One Part Two Part Three
"The Golden Age of the Viol" 
Hespèrion XXI/Jordi Savall
28 August, TivoliVredenburg
"Dowland in Holland" 
29 August, Leeuwenbergh
Purcell: "Funeral Sentences" 
Vox Luminis/Lionel Meunier
29 August, TivoliVredenburg
"Consorts: Three Keyboards" 
Skip Sempé, muselar; Pierre Hantaï, Olivier Fortin, harpsichord
29 August, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
"Dowland's Lute Songs" 
Mariana Flores, soprano; Leonardo García Alarcón, harpsichord
29 August, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
Purcell: King Arthur 
Vox Luminis, La Fenice/Jean Tubéry
31 August, TivoliVredenburg
"Consorts: Thomas Tomkins' Voyces & Viols" 
Pluto-Ensemble/Marnix De Cat; Hathor Consort/Romina Lischka
31 August, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
Purcell & Britten: "Three Odes for St.-Cecilia" 
Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh
1 September, TivoliVredenburg
"Consorts: John Jenkins" 
Ensemble Masques/Olivier Fortin
1 September, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
Jenkins: "The excellence of hand" 
2 September, Lutheran Church
It has been many years ago that the Festival Early Music Utrecht was (partly) devoted to English music. It was time, then, to return to England: this year the 34th edition of the festival was entirely devoted to "England, my England". Music from the Middle Ages to the mid-18th century is performed during ten days in the various halls of the large music centre TivoliVredenburg and several churches.
The opening concert was given by Hespèrion XXI, directed by Jordi Savall . It presented a programme of consort music from a period of around 50 years. It was appropriate to put the viola da gamba and especially the consort of viols in the spotlight in the opening concert as such an ensemble is one of the main hallmarks of English music life in the late renaissance. The viol was played and consort music was composed across Europe but in England more of such music was written than elsewhere and it was still written and played when the very form of consort music had become obsolete on the continent. One of the most famous composers of consort music was John Dowland, the last who composed for such an ensemble was Henry Purcell. The latter was absent in the programme, the former played only a marginal role, although his Lachrimae antiquae - the piece which made him famous in his own time and in modern times - was included. Otherwise a major role was played by Anthony Holborne, who in 1599 published the very first collection in English history entirely devoted to instrumental music. Those pieces can be played by ensembles of various instruments, but certainly also by a consort of viols. In most pieces the viols were joined by percussion; in some of the more lively dances that made some sense - although they could perfectly live without it - but in other cases I had my doubts. The same goes for the use of a guitar. The concert fittingly opened with a pavan and galliard, one of the most popular dance pairs in the English renaissance. Also present were In nomines: we heard just four of the many which were written. Especially beautiful were the Four note pavan by Alfonso Ferrabosco II and the Paven in C by William Lawes, with its many harmonic peculiarities. Savall and his colleagues delivered fine performances, with good ensemble and nice dynamic shading. The pieces were mostly played almost attacca, and that was not ideal as in particular the more reflective and melancholic pieces need time to sink in. It also has to be said that this is music for domestic performance and doesn't fit a large modern concert hall. In this respect the early music movement is the victim of its own success. The connection between music and space should be part of the debate about historical performance practice, but is mostly ignored.
A consort of viols could also be used in sacred music, in private circles as well as in church. The recently founded Pluto-Ensemble, directed by Marnix De Cat, and the Hathor Consort demonstrated the combination of voices and viols in a programme of anthems by Thomas Tomkins . They reflect the influence of the madrigal in their connection between text and music. In some of the anthems the viols played colla voce, lending additional colour to the voices. It needs to be said that the use of viols is not indicated by the composer; the anthems are all set for voices and organ, and that is probably the way they were mostly performed. But there is historical evidence that sometimes viols were used instead of the organ, and the two ensembles delivered a nice and convincing demonstration of how that may have sounded. The Pluto-Ensemble is a flexible group whose line-up can change from one project to the other. For this concert its director had brought together a fine group of singers, some of the younger generation, but also a 'veteran' in the person of Harry van der Kamp. The voices blended well which was especially important in the pieces which were sung a capella. Some of these were for three voices, suggesting domestic performance, as we know many pieces of the same scoring of the time, for instance from the oeuvre of the Lawes brothers. The Hathor Consort is probably less known than ensembles such as Phantasm or Fretwork but is certainly of the same standard.
The fact that Purcell still composed music for viol consort doesn't imply that nothing had changed during the 17th century. Far from it. The life and career of John Jenkins perfect illustrate this. During his unusual long life (1592-1678) he saw the change from the stile antico to the style of the baroque which was already dominating the continental music scene. He himself contributed to the stylistic changes in that he started to write for the 'new' violin and gave it an increasingly important role in his oeuvre. This was documented by the Ensemble Masques, directed by Olivier Fortin . Three suites were played in the 'modern' scoring of two violins and bc, but as this is an alternative to the more traditional consort line-up these suites have little in common with the modern Italian trio sonata. Another development which documents the increasing influence of the concertante style is the role of the viola da gamba as a solo instrument. Christopher Simpson was one of the pioneers in England of instrumental virtuosity, especially in divisions such as the collection of pieces which he published under the title Fantasias the monthes, from which we heard September in g minor, which received an engaging performance from Mélisande Corriveau. Also on the programme was the Suite No. 3 from the collection Broken Consort by Matthew Locke, a rather self-willed character which is exposed in his music, for instance in the often daring harmonic progressions. Ensemble Masques delivered fine performances which convincingly demonstrated the high quality of Jenkins' music which is not as well-known as it should be.
The ensemble Fantasticus  continued the exploration of Jenkins' oeuvre, and focused on his compositions in which the violin is given more virtuosic parts to play. Three fantasia-suites for violin, viola da gamba and obligato keyboard were played by Antoinette Lohmann (who replaced Rie Kimura who had fallen ill), Robert Smith and Guillermo Brachetta. The form of the fantasia-suite had been introduced by John Coprario, but Jenkins' contributions to the genre are more modern. These comprise three movements, starting with a fantasia which is by far the longest and the most ambitious as far as the violin parts are concerned. These are very much the equivalent of Simpson's viola da gamba solos, including the application of the division technique. In the oeuvre of William Lawes we find comparable works; in this programme the Fantazia and ayres No. 8 in D were performed. The violin part is of the same level as in Jenkins' fantasia-suites. In addition to the music by these native English composers the ensemble played three pieces by Nicola Matteis who was from Naples and settled in England around 1670. He was a violin virtuoso of the kind nobody had ever heard in England before. Some of his pieces are of a quite bizarre nature; in this programme some of the more 'conventional' items were chosen. It was admirable that the three players were able to produce such good ensemble, considering that Ms Lohmann replaced her colleague on short notice. She was very much the star of the concert, with technically assured and musically brilliant performances. The musicians introduced their audience to the very heart of the repertoire.
Consort music of a different kind was performed by Skip Sempé, Pierre Hantaï and Olivier Fortin on a muselar and two harpsichords . The liner-notes stated that many aristocrats owned various keyboard instruments and therefore these were played in consort. That statement seems a little too bold: the very fact that someone owns two or more instruments doesn't imply that these were played at the same time in ensemble. I would have liked to see some historical evidence of this practice. That said, the programme was original in that it included a number of pieces by lesser-known composers. The three artists gave outstanding performances which resulted in a most entertaining late night. Some pieces were played on all three instruments, others on two, among them the two only pieces which are explicitly written for two keyboard instruments: Farnaby's Alman for two virginals and A fancy for two to play by Tomkins.
Lute and consort songs constitute an important part of English music of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. However, not that many concerts are devoted to this repertoire, and if lute songs are performed they are mostly taken from the books of John Dowland. That is a bit of a missed opportunity, because he was by far not the only composer of lute songs. The recital by the Argentinian soprano Mariana Flores and the lutenist Hopkinson Smith was to shed light on at least one other lute song composer, John Danyel. Unfortunately Smith had to cancel for personal reasons and his place was taken by Leonardo Garcia Alarcon on harpsichord. That also resulted in a change of repertoire: no songs by Danyel, but two by Purcell instead. These came off best because of the keyboard accompaniment, but also the expressive interpretation by Ms Flores. In Dowland the two artists were less convincing. The harpsichord is certainly not the ideal medium to play Dowland's lute parts, and Ms Flores was too 'baroque' in her approach of his songs. I saw my lady weep was unnaturally slow, and Garcia Alarcon's improvised prelude and interludes were far too long. As the influence of the seconda prattica in Dowland's songs is largely absent - In darkness let me dwell is one of the few exceptions - the singer should avoid the kind of baroque expression Ms Flores applicated. The concert started with the Four note pavan by Alfonso Ferrabosco II, to which he later added a text by Ben Jonson, Hear me, O God. This is originally a consort song in which the voice is an integral part of the discourse and should blend with the viols. But the voice can't blend that way with the harpsichord, and because of that this was a most unhappy way to start the concert.
English melodies, among them Dowland's songs, found their way to the continent, for instance to Germany but also to the Netherlands. In particular the Frisian poet Jan Jansz Starter - himself of English origin - introduced many melodies to the Low Countries. They were arranged in various ways, for instance by Jacob van Eyck for the recorder, but also provided with texts in the vernacular, either sacred or secular. The Camerata Trajectina, which specialises in Dutch music of the renaissance and baroque periods, contributed a programme with such arrangements . English melodies with new texts by Starter opened and ended the programme, in between were a number of Dowland melodies - for instance the Frog galliard and Come again, sweet love - with sacred texts by the minister Dirk Rafaelszoon Camphuysen. One noticed that melody and text didn't always synchronize perfectly, but one has to take into consideration that the ideas about this issue at the time were a little different from what we consider ideal. The singers and instrumentalists gave good performances; the recorder player Saskia Coolen played some nice variations on melodies circulating in the Netherlands.
Obviously Henry Purcell takes an important place in this year's festival. He can be considered one of the best composers in history, and his oeuvre is large and versatile. The vocal ensemble Vox Luminis, this year's artist in residence - was responsible for one of the highlights with a performance of Purcell's Funeral sentences . These comprise the music he composed for the funeral of Queen Mary in 1694. These pieces have become quite famous and are regularly performed. However, a considerable part of the ceremony was taken by the sentences Thomas Morley had written for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth in 1603. Purcell only provided the missing parts and seemingly tried to stay close to the style of Morley, resulting in a remarkable unity within these sentences. Both composers created some of their best music for the respective funerals, certainly under the impression of the occasion and the beautiful and incisive texts on death and resurrection. The various pieces were ordered and performed as a kind of reconstruction of the original ceremonies. This and the brilliant performances by the singers and players of Vox Luminis resulted in these funeral sentences making a more lasting impression than the CD recording of the same repertoire (Ricercar, 2013). Those people who attended the concert won't easily forget it. In the first part the ensemble was equally convincing in the Ode for Queen Mary's birthday, Celebrate this festival and the anthem My heart is inditing, one of Purcell's best-known compositions.
Another piece which is quite well-known is the semi-opera King Arthur. It is a mixture of spoken text, arias, ensembles and instrumental pieces. In modern performances the spoken text is usually omitted as was the case here, except some narrative which linked the various sections together. There were supertitles with a Dutch translation but the English texts are not that easy to translate. To many people these supertitles won't have made much sense, especially as there is hardly any plot. But the music is great and so was the performance by Vox Luminis and La Fenice, directed by Jean Tubéry . Although this was basically a concertante performance there were some scenic elements, especially in the last act. Not all members of the ensemble convinced with their acting skills; most of them seem not very fit to make a career in opera. The theatrical elements of this part came off better in the way the arias and ensembles were performed. There was some lively and bright playing from the instrumental ensemble. Jean Tubéry created a nice spectacle which was probably as good as it gets in a concertante setting.
One could argue that it is a little disappointing that we mostly heard compositions by Purcell which are pretty well-known. However, Purcell is quite a fashionable composer which means that much of his oeuvre is regularly performed and recorded. That also goes for the two Odes for St Cecilia's Day which were performed by the Gabrieli Consort and Players, directed by Paul McCreesh . The first Ode, Welcome to all the pleasures (1683) is rather short. The best-known part is the ground Here the deities approve which is scored for countertenor and often performed by a male alto. However, its range is rather low for that type of voice and therefore it has been suggested that Purcell had a voice in mind like the French hautecontre. In this concert the piece was sung by Nicholas Mulroy, a tenor with a strong upper register which he used to good effect. His performance was very expressive, and he was even more impressive in Tis Nature's voice from the second and much larger Ode, Hail, bright Cecilia (1692). It was one of the best performances of this aria I have heard and that goes for the Ode as a whole. Thomas Walker was excellent in an unusually dramatic performance of The fife, and all the harmony of war. The duet of the two tenors, In vain the am'rous flute and soft guitar, was another highlight. Not all the soloists made an equally good impression; George Humphreys, for instance, did well in his solos but used a little too much vibrato. The orchestral playing was excellent. One can only hope that McCreesh will record these two Odes on disc. In between he performed a 20th-century piece, the Hymn to Saint-Cecilia op. 27 for choir a capella from 1942 by Benjamin Britten. It received a very good performance as far as I can tell, in particular in the realization of the often large dynamic contrasts. But this is not my cup of tea, and although its inclusion makes some sense - Britten was influenced by Purcell's settings - I could do without such insertions in a programme of early music.
"Dunstaple & Dufay: Keys and musycks" 
31 August, Geertekerk
"Dunstaple and contemporaries" 
3 Sept, St.-Willibrordkerk
"The Mon in the Moon" 
Anne Azéma, soprano, hurdy-gurdy; Shira Kammen, fiddle, harp
4 Sept, St.-Willibrordkerk
"Swinthun of Winchester" 
5 Sept, Pieterskerk
"Consorts: Tears of the Muses" 
Spes Nostra/Jérôme Hantaï
2 Sept, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
"Chamber Music for the Tudors" 
Mezzaluna/Peter Van Heyghen; Paul O'Dette, lute
3 Sept, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
"King-sized Consorts" 
Capriccio Stravagante Renaissance Orchestra/Skip Sempé
4 Sept, TivoliVredenburg
"Out of Handel's Shadow: Avison's Trio sonatas" 
Collegium 1704/Václav Luks
29 August, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
"Out of his own shadow: Keyboard suites by Handel" 
Pierre Hantaï, harpsichord
31 August, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
"Out of Handel's shadow: Draghi & Bononcini" 
Luca Guglielmi, harpsichord
1 Sept, Lutheran Church
"Out of Handel's shadow: Sonatas by Handel and contemporaries" 
Bojan Cicic, violin; Maude Gratton, harpsichord
3 Sept, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
"Out of Handel's shadow: Geminiani, Roman and Handel" 
Musica ad Rhenum
5 Sept, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
Let me start this second part of my review with four concerts devoted to the earliest music of this festival. The ensemble Dialogos, directed by Katarina Livljanic, shed light on the cult of St Swithun, which began in the 10th century . The common thread was the description of his life by Wulfstan, a singer from Winchester. This was complemented with excerpts from a hagiography of this saint. The texts have come down to us without music. This means that they can only be sung on 'new' music, either composed or improvised, in which an attempt is made to come as close to the style of the time as possible. Some texts were also narrated, and there were some scenic elements. These texts alternated with liturgical chants from the Winchester Troparium which includes a large number of two-part pieces and thus is an example of the earliest polyphony in history. This concept resulted in a captivating performance, a combination of "story telling" and liturgy which is eloquently communicated by the four ladies of Dialogos. This concert proved once again that such early music can easily appeal to a modern audience without modern whims.
Texts without music were also the subject of a concert by Anne Azéma and Shira Kammen . In the Middle Ages texts were mostly not written to be read, but rather to be recited, preferably on music. Unfortunately only in rare cases the music has survived. Azéma and Kammen wanted to restore the ancient practice of musical recitation of texts, and they made use of various attempts to create music in the style of the time, comparable to what Dialogos does. They wrote some music themselves, but also turned to melodies composed by some specialists, such as Margriet Tindemans and John Fleagle. Then it is the task of the performers to communicate those texts - some humorous, others moralistic - to a modern audience in a meaningful way, without compromising their historical character. The two artists did so brilliantly. They presented themselves as outstanding story tellers, the one with her voice, the other with her instrument. The performance was received very well by the audience, proving that great artists can bridge the gap between ancient times and the present.
Two ensembles shed light on one of the main composers of the English early renaissance: John Dunstaple. He is held responsible for the continental fascination with the contenance angloise. However, it is not quite clear how he managed to do that. Musicologists have speculated about him having visited the continent, but there is no unanimity in this matter. The ensemble La Capilla  found a new hint of Dunstaple probably having been on the continent: the chanson Puisque m'amour has been found in three sources in Burgundy and northern Italy, whereas it has not been preserved in a single English source. This piece was the starting point for the programme and is also the cantus firmus of an anonymous mass from which we heard the Gloria, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei. One composer who was influenced by the contenance angloise was Dufay who was represented with some of his best-known pieces, among them Se la face ay pale. We also heard some plainchant and pieces by Binchois and Regis. La Capilla comprises members of the former ensemble Capilla Flamenca which was dissolved after the death of its director, Dirk Snellings. The sound is very recognizable; the plainchant was sung with beautiful sonority. In the polyphonic pieces every single line was clearly audible. Due to the intelligent programming the concert had a great amount of sincerity and cohesion. The space of the large St.-Willibrordkerk was cleverly exploited.
Music of a completely different character was performed by Tasto Solo . This ensemble - consisting of Guillermo Pérez (organetto) and David Catalunya (clavisimbalum) - focuses on the music for keyboard from the Gothic era. These instruments had become obsolete at the beginning of the 16th century, but the two artists wanted to explore the extent to which late medieval culture left its mark on Tudor England. At that time some original instrumental music was written - mostly dances, but also more abstract consort music and intellectual games, such as a 'puzzle canon' by Dunstaple - but the repertoire for keyboard or other instruments was mostly vocal in origin. The two instruments are quite fascinating. The clavisimbalum seems to be closely connected to the psaltery as they both offer the possibility of creating dynamic differences. The organetto's bellows are blown by the left hand which obviously makes the wind a little unstable and lends the instrument the qualities of the human voice or a renaissance flute. Because of these respective qualities they are excellently suited to play vocal music. It resulted in a most intriguing programme, also due to the two artists who in their performances explore the heart and soul of the music.
The second half of the festival included some more concerts with consort music, not only with viols but also with recorders. The three concerts to be reviewed here mark the early stages of consort music in England and a much later episode in the history of the genre: consort music in a large line-up from the early 17th century. Spes Nostra, directed by Jérôme Hantaï , played music from a manuscript which was put together in the 1570s and is preserved in the British Library. It includes a number of uniques, but also some copies of pieces by famous masters such as Anthony Holborne. Spes Nostra started with "Hymns", sacred works which are include without a text which is a further indication of instrumental performances of vocal music. Some little-known composers were represented: Osbert Parsley, Thomas Preston, Henry Stoning and a certain Picforth. The second chapter was devoted to dances (Holborne, Dowland, Ferrabosco II) and the last included four splendid pieces by William Byrd: two fantasias and two In nomine's. The selected works received an incisive interpretation. The dances by Holborne were played here without percussion and Spes Nostra, with its lively and animated performances, confirmed my impression that these pieces don't need it.
Mezzaluna was the only recorder consort which made its appearance in the main programme , and that is a little disappointing, especially as the history of English consort music starts at the court of Henry VIII with a group of Italian recorder players. The ensemble started its programme with music from the time of Henry; it included several pieces by Italian composers (Ruffo, Arcadelt, Willaert), because the King loved Italian music. The ensemble and lutenist Paul O'Dette then continued with music which was played under the rule of next members of the Tudor dynasty. Among them were Augustine Bassano, a late descendant of that group of Italian recorder players, and two of the main lute composers of the 16th century: John Johnson and Daniel Bachelar. It was an interesting and entertaining programme, played perfectly in tune by Mezzaluna. Paul O'Dette gave eloquent accounts of the lute pieces. The concert ended with some pieces played by the ensemble and O'Dette together.
Recorders were also part of the Capriccio Stravagante Renaissance Orchestra which entered the stage of the large hall of TivoliVredenburg on the last Friday . It was an ensemble of quite different proportions than what we had heard so far. It comprised a recorder consort, a consort of viols, two violins, loud wind instruments (shawm, cornets, sackbuts), three lutes and two virginals and percussion. It was argued in the programme book that at the end of the 16th century strings and wind sometimes played together, in particular at special occasions. That may be true but did they play in such large numbers? Moreover, it seems that it was rather unusual for wind instruments which were built as a consort, such as recorders, to play with loud wind instruments. The whole idea of a 'renaissance orchestra' seems a questionable concept. It made much sense to include a number of pieces by William Brade as he worked for most of his life in northern Germany, but was of English origin. But we also heard many pieces from Terpsichore by Michael Praetorius, and there is hardly any connection between him and England. Most of the dances he arranged and included in his collection are of French origin. That said, it all sounded very well and the playing was mostly outstanding, although the coordination was probably not always perfect. Even this large a group is less suitable for a large hall as in TivoliVredenburg; the lutes had hardly any presence. But the music and the gorgeous sound of recorders, cornetts and sackbuts and strings are hard to resist.
In a festival devoted to English music one can hardly ignore the towering figure of George Frideric Handel. However, his music is very well-known and one doesn't need a festival to put his music into the limelight. It is rather this immigrant whose presence was so overwhelming that native English composers remained in his shadow, and especially today many of his English contemporaries are hardly known and performed. It was therefore a good idea to create a sub-series under the title "Out of Handel's shadow", although some of the composers who were represented in the series are pretty well-known. That certainly goes for Francesco Geminiani, another immigrant who played a major role in the English music scene. Musica ad Rhenum played one of his cello sonatas op. 5 . Far less known is Johan Helmich Roman, the first native Swedish composer in history who worked for some time in London. His flute sonatas show the influence of Handel and of opera. The latter came especially to the fore in the performances of the ensemble - Jed Wentz (transverse flute), Job ter Haar (cello), Michael Borgstede (harpsichord) - thanks to the liberties in the treatment of tempo as we are used to hear from this ensemble. The accellerations and ritardandi were effectively used in the interest of a dramatic account of two of these sonatas. Borgstede played three harpsichord pieces which could be from Handel's pen, an Arpeggio and two arrangements of opera arias. The concert ended with three arrangements of Scottish airs for flute and bc - light and sometimes humorous pieces which were given exactly the right interpretation and ended a most entertaining concert.
Another little-known composer is Charles Avison who caused a kind of storm when he criticised Handel and claimed Geminiani to be the better composer. However, he certainly appreciated Handel's music and performed some of his compositions himself. The two composers were both represented in the concert of the Collegium 1704, directed by Václav Luks . It was not only a confrontation of two different composers but also of two different styles. Handel was represented with two trio sonatas from the op. 2 and the op. 5 respectively which reflect the style of the baroque with its dominance of counterpoint. Avison belongs to a different generation: the trio sonata from his op. 1 is different from Handel's sonatas, for instance in the passages in which the two violins play in parallel motion. Especially interesting were three sonatas for an obbligato keyboard and strings which show the influence of the Pièces de clavecin en concert. They were given good performances but unfortunately the balance was a little too much in favour of the violins; the keyboard part had too little presence. However, Collegium 1704 successfully underlined the unmistakable qualities of Avison's music.
Bojan Cicic played sonatas by Handel and some of his contemporaries . He also shed light on the stylistic differences. He stated that the title of the programme could also have been "out of Corelli's shadow", considering the huge influence of especially the latter's sonatas op. 5. One of them was included in the programme, and he played three sonatas by Handel which represent the baroque style. So does Michael Christian Festing, a violin virtuoso of his time, but today largely forgotten. Cicic showed that he composed substantial music which deserves to be better known. Emanuele Barbella belongs to another time; his sonatas reflect the influence of Tartini which Cicic underlined by the use of a different bow. He makes the impression of being a rather introverted personality but he played with fire and passion, without crossing the borders of good taste. He was supported by Maude Gratton, also not exactly a very bubbling character, but she gave a fine performance of one of Handel's brilliant keyboard suites.
Those were the subject of a recital by Pierre Hantaï  whose concert had the slightly different title of "Out of his own shadow", referring to the relative neglect of Handel's keyboard works. The eight suites which were published in 1720 belong to the better-known part of his keyboard oeuvre but they are certainly not part of the standard repertoire of harpsichordists. The reason is not that they are of inferior quality but rather that his oratorios and operas get all the attention. Moreover, the harpsichord repertoire from the first half of the 18th century is so huge that his keyboard works are overshadowed by the likes of Couperin, Bach and Scarlatti. Hantaï had selected some suites from the 1720 collection and also had put together a couple of suites from different works. He needed some time to find his way in these works; especially in the opening suite his playing was a bit awkward and lacked conviction; there were also some technical lapses. But when he had really settled he gave good performances, for instance of the Suite in A (HWV 426) which ends with a gigue which is one of Handel's most brilliant pieces. The theatrical traits in the Ouverture del Pastor Fido came off well.
Luca Guglielmo devoted his recital to two other Italian immigrants: Giovanni Battista Draghi and Giovanni Bononcini . The former was an early immigrant who settled in England around 1662. He was not a contemporary of Handel, but rather of Purcell, and there are clearly some stylistic similarities between the two. The programme opened with his Ground in c minor 'Scocca pur whose theme in the bass is very much alike some of Purcell's, for instance in his vocal music. Guglielmi also played two suites whose movements have English titles; one of them ends with The Hunting Tune. The Toccata in c minor is a reference to the composer's Italian roots. Bononcini was mainly known for his operas and because of their popularity was invited to come to England. Here he also published some chamber music, among them eight divertimenti which appeared in two editions: one for violin or flute and bc and one for harpsichord. Guglielmi played three from the latter and these turned out to be substantial additions to the keyboard repertoire. Guglielmi is an artist who likes to avoid the well-trodden paths, as his recordings of music by the likes of Hasse, Platti and Bernardo Pasquini shows. A programme like this is just in his line. He played with panache and technical assurance. It was one of the most interesting among the harpsichord recitals.
"Sheppard: Media vita" 
29 August, Jacobikerk
"Of a rose I sing" 
Gabrieli Consort/Paul McCreesh
31 August, Jacobikerk
Tye: Motets 
1 Sept, Pieterskerk
"Light and shadow: Anthems" 
2 Sept, Pieterskerk
"The Golden Age of the Tudors: Byrd and Tallis" 
5 Sept, Pieterskerk
"A Mass for Peace" 
Doulce Mémoire/Denis Raisin Dadre
4 Sept, Pieterskerk
"Virginalists: Gibbons and Dowland" 
Laurent Stewart, harpsichord, muselar
29 August, Lutheran Church
"Virginalists: Giles Farnaby" 
Catalina Vicens, harpsichord
3 Sept, Lutheran Church
"Virginalists: Thomas Tomkins" 
Carole Cerasi, harpsichord
4 Sept, Lutheran Church
"Virginalists: William Byrd" 
Ursula Dütschler, harpsichord, muselar
5 Sept, Lutheran Church
Purcell & Blow 
Richard Egarr, harpsichord
2 Sept, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
Blow: Venus and Adonis 
Dunedin Consort/John Butt
2 Sept, TivoliVredenburg
"Orpheus Brittanicus" 
Dorothee Mields, soprano; Stefan Temmingh, recorder; Axel Wolf, lute; Sebastian Wienand, harpsichord
3 Sept, Geertekerk
Eccles: Semele 
La Risonanza/Fabio Bonizzoni
3 Sept, TivoliVredenburg
Purcell: Dido and Aeneas 
Voces8, L'Arpeggiata/Christina Pluhar
5 Sept, TivoliVredenburg
English polyphony is rich in size and quality. It is also different in character, due to the religious upheavals in the mid-16th century. That was clearly exposed in the various concerts in this part of the festival.
The French ensemble Doulce Mémoire, directed by Denis Raisin Dadre, transported us to the early 16th century when Francis I was King of France . In 1519 Charles V had been crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and Spain which threatened the balance of power in Europe. In order to create a counterbalance Francis and the English King Henry VIII met in northern France in the so-called 'Field of the Cloth of Gold'. Obviously much music was performed at that occasion; both monarchs brought along their own chapel with them. This gave Raisin Dadre the idea to confront the two 'national' styles. It is not known which music was performed. On the basis of various considerations - explained in the booklet of the recent recording (ZigZag Territoires) - he chose two masses by Claudin de Sermisy (Missa Quare fremuerunt) and Nicholas Ludford (Missa Benedicta) respectively. They were performed in different ways: sections from Sermisy's mass with instruments playing colla voce and parts of Ludford's mass a cappella. This contrast was most interesting; there was little difference in the way the two masses were sung, but we probably don't know exactly how the English and the French sung at the time and in what way it was different. The ensemble delivered a good performance, although Sermisy was more convincing than Ludford. That was mainly due to tenor Hugues Primard whose rather penetrating voice had a little too much presence. Between the mass movements instrumental pieces were played.
With John Sheppard we move about one generation forward. Stile Antico performed a programme which included the monumental antiphon Media vita which received an impressive performance . It is a demanding work, not only because of its length - about 25 minutes - but also because of the virtuosity of the vocal lines. In addition utmost attention has to be paid to ensemble. The latter is one of Stile Antico's strengths. The qualities of the individual singers came up in the relaxed way the demanding parts were sung, even when these touched the limits of their tessitura. Very nice was the subtle dynamic shading. The text was often hard to understand, but that wasn't considered a problem in the Roman-Catholic liturgy. That was different in the Church of England, and that was exposed in some pieces in the vernacular, such as I give you a new commandment which is homophonic and syllabic and was sung with one voice per part. The enthusiasm of the audience was rewarded with a splendid performance of one of the most beautiful spiritual madrigals of the English renaissance, Never weather-beaten sail by Thomas Campion.
The vocal ensemble Cinquecento is a major force in the field of renaissance polyphony whose performances are well documented on disc. But so far it has confined itself to composers from the continent. I hadn't heard them in English repertoire and I was curious how they would fare here. Their programme focused on Christopher Tye, one of the leading composers of his time . Unfortunately many of his works have been lost and a number of extant compositions are incomplete. The latter is also the case with the Mass for 5 voices, called The mean Mass in the programme. This performance was possible because the missing tenor part could be reconstructed. Here Tye's quirky harmony came clearly to the fore, also thanks to the flawless intonation of the singers. This also allowed to notice the even more drastic harmonic experiments in Jesu salvator saeculi by John Sheppard. Tye was put in his historical context through the addition of some pieces by Tallis. Most British ensembles perform this kind of music with more than one voice per part. It is hard to say what comes closer to the historical reality; at least in the Chapel Royal the choir was larger than the five voices of Cinquecento. This aspect probably doesn't get the attention it deserves. The advantage of a small ensemble is the better audibility of the text and the subtler treatment of dynamics. That was also the case here. This concert made me wish to hear Cinquecento more frequently in English repertoire.
Thomas Tallis and William Mundy were the main composers in the programme which Paul McCreesh performed with his Gabrieli Consort . The former's Gaude gloriosa Dei mater and the latter's Vox Patris caelestis are antiphons of impressive dimensions. Both pieces were written under the reign of 'Bloody Mary', Mary I, who was Queen of England for five years and tried to restore the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church. That also meant that composers returned to the complicated polyphonic style in which the audibility of the text was of secondary importance. The two antiphons would be entirely out of place in the Anglican liturgy, not only due to their complex structures but also because the texts are connected to the veneration of Mary. McCreesh pointed out in his introductory remarks that the references to the Virgin Mary could also allude to Queen Mary. The ensemble comprised 16 fine singers, equally divided over the four voice groups. I liked their performances, but now and then I noticed a light vibrato, especially in those passages which were sung with a reduced number of voices. I am also not sure whether pieces like these should be sung forte from start to finish. In this regard I found the performance of Sheppard's Media vita by Stile Antico more convincing as the treatment of dynamics was more differentiated. Also on the program were two pieces from the late 20th century, by Kenneth Leighton and Matthew Martin respectively. They are inspired by the music of the Renaissance, but written in a unmistakably modern idiom. That makes them rather unsuitable for a concert at a festival of early music.
The Portuguese ensemble Officium, directed by Pedro Teixeira, made its festival debut . It focuses mainly on Portuguese renaissance music, but in this concert it sang pieces by Byrd, Tallis and Sheppard. The programming was not very original: it was a kind of "the best of". With the exception of the four-part mass by Byrd I had already heard all the pieces in the programme at least once. That said the ensemble gave a good impression of its qualities. It was clear that it pays much attention to the audibility of the text which is anything but obvious. I also noted quite some strong dynamic accents which seemed a little questionable in this repertoire. I liked the warmth of the sound this ensemble produces, something you mostly don't hear from British ensembles. That came to the fore, for instance, in one of Byrd's most famous motets, Ave verum corpus. One of the highlights was Tallis's Miserere nostri, Domine which received an almost electrifying interpretation. In this piece the singers stood in a circle; they probably should do that more often as it seems to increase the intensity of the performance. I very much enjoyed the acquaintance with this ensemble; hopefully it will return in another edition of the festival.
The ensemble Vox Luminis is mainly known for its performances of baroque repertoire. It was therefore interesting to hear how they would handle English renaissance polyphony. They presented themselves in a program with anthems under the title "Light and shadow" . This referred to the content of the pieces selected for this concert. It included motets in Latin for the Roman Catholic liturgy and anthems in English for the Anglican liturgy. The ensemble made good use of the space of the Pieterskerk: some pieces were performed in the choir, in others one singer sang the plainchant verses in the sacristy. Vox Luminis produces a resonant sound which is quite different from what we are used to hear from British ensembles. Whether that has to do with the character of the voices or is the result of a different training is hard to say. The latter may be the case as some British choirs of boys and men produce a comparable sound which is called 'continental'. It is probably impossible to establish what is more in line with the historical 'truth' - if there is such a thing as 'truth' in this matter. I like this 'alternative' in any case, which was also due to the high level of interpretation which one expects from this ensemble. The intonation, the dynamics, the way the text was treated - it all testified to the intelligence and style consciousness with which Vox Luminis proceeds. The program ended with a subtle performance of In pace in idipsum by Sheppard. Hopefully we hear this ensemble more often in renaissance repertoire.
The English virginalists take a special part in music history. This term is used for composers from the late Tudor and early Jacobean period who wrote music for a strung keyboard instrument. Although William Byrd can't be considered the founder of this 'school', he played a crucial role in its development as he was the first to write large-scale fantasias for keyboard and - as Mark Manion stated in the programme book - created a specific idiom which was different from music for other instruments or for consort. It was appropriate to pay tribute to his importance by including two recitals in the series with virginal music; I heard only the first in which Ursula Dütschler played the harpsichord and the muselar , as did other interpreters in this series. We heard some of Byrd's finest works, such as the brilliant Fantasia in G (MB 62). The carman's whistle, with its unexpected modulation, is another gem. It is impressive what Byrd made of a rather simple tune like The queens alman, also known as La Monica or Une jeune fillette. An imitation of bells can easily turn into something trivial, but The Bells is anything but. Ms Dütschler gave an outstanding account of Byrd's keyboard music, with The woods so wild as one of the highlights.
Laurent Stewart played a programme with pieces by Orlando Gibbons and John Dowland . Gibbons was one of the greatest keyboard composers of his time, mentioned in the same breath with Byrd and Bull. In particular Gibbons' fantasies are complex pieces which are technically demanding; Stewart took quiet tempi which allowed the listener to follow the various lines, also thanks to the clarity of his playing and his good articulation. In his dances the rhythms came off well. The surprising part was Dowland who neither played the keyboard nor composed for it. His compositions were often arranged for keyboard; the programme book didn't tell whether Stewart had made his own arrangements or made use of some from Dowland's time, for instance by Thomas Morley. He showed that at least some of Dowland's pieces are well suited for a keyboard performance.
Catalina Vicens devoted her recital to Giles Farnaby , one of the lesser-known virginalists who was not a professional musician and composer but rather an amateur. Most of his keyboard works are included in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. I became aquainted with them many years ago through a recording by the late Bradford Tracey. His music, including imaginative variations on popular tunes and characterised by marked rhythms, had great appeal to me and therefore I looked forward to this recital. Ms Vicens played very well, especially in her realization of the ornaments in the variations, but I was rather unhappy with her interpretations. Her tempi were mostly slowish and as a result the rhythms didn't come out that well. I sometimes even didn't recognize pieces I thought I knew pretty well. Her playing probably reflected her views on Farnaby as exposed in the programme notes. She underlined the charm of Farnaby's music which is certainly a part of his oeuvre. But that view seemed to me a little one-sided; there is more zip in Farnaby's music than her playing revealed. I felt that Vicens made him sound too harmless.
One of the last virginalists was Thomas Tomkins. Around 70 pieces from his pen have been preserved which mostly seem to date from the end of his life. They show the influence of Byrd who probably was his teacher and because of that they are stylistically a little out of sync with his time. Several genres were included in the recital by Carole Cerasi who in 2001 released a disc with music by Tomkins . We heard variations on popular tunes (Fortune my foe), dances (pavans and galliards), A Fantasi and two grounds which opened and closed the programme. Many of Tomkins' pieces are quite virtuosic and the interpreter needs supple fingers to realize the often brilliant passagework. That is certainly the case with Ms Cerasi who impressively showed her skills in A grounde (MB 39). But she also convinced in more introverted pieces such as A sad pavan for these distracted times. Barafostus dreame, Fortune my foe and the fast galliards came off with great rhythmic precision.
As we already noted Henry Purcell played a major role in this year's festival. He was by far the dominating composer in the last quarter of the 17th century. In analogy to the series "Out of Handel's shadow" there could have been another with the title "Out of Purcell's shadow". One of the composers who could have taken profit from that was John Blow. He was Purcell's teacher and preceded and succeeded him as organist of Westminster Abbey. In a way an opportunity was missed to put him into the spotlight. There was every reason to do so as most of his oeuvre is hardly known, if at all. He contributed to almost any genre in vogue in his time; he himself considered his anthems the most important part of his output. Richard Egarr paid some attention to his keyboard music in a recital with Blow and Purcell . In this part of their respective oeuvres there is little difference between the two: Purcell's keyboard music is not that well known, although better represented on disc than Blow's. It is probably because these are mostly not very complicated that they are largely ignored. But they have a specific charm, and relatively simple music can be of musical value as Egarr showed in the two suites he played. He also included three grounds, a very popular form at the time. Purcell used it frequently in various works, including vocal compositions, for instance the Ode for St Cecilia's Day of 1683, performed some days earlier by the Gabrieli Consort and Players. Egarr played A new ground in e minor which is the arrangement of 'Here the deities approve' from that Ode. The two pieces by Blow were quite remarkable, especially the Chaconne in FaUt which is much more virtuosic than Purcell's keyboard works. I had never heard it before and I find it surprising that it seems to be completely ignored. The Suite in d is also a substantial work which includes some remarkable harmonic progressions. Egarr's enthusiasm was infectious and he convincingly demonstrated the musical value of the music he had chosen.
On 2 September Blow was at the centre of the evening concert in the large hall of TivoliVredenburg, when John Butt directed his Dunedin Consort in a performance of his masque Venus and Adonis . It was a concertante performance and - in contrast to Purcell's King Arthur two days earlier - there were hardly any scenic elements. That is not much of a problem as there is little action in the piece. That is not to say that nothing dramatic happens: while hunting Adonis is fatally injured by a wild boar and Venus bursts into a lament. The latter is rather restrained; typically English, one could say: let's not exaggerate. Mhiari Lawson sang it well but from a stylsitic point of view I was not impressed by her performance, especially because of her incessant vibrato. On the whole I found the singing rather mediocre; Matthew Brook was alright as Adonis, but not more than that. Claire Wilkinson was by far the most convincing among the soloists. The instrumental ensemble played nicely, but was too bland. Blow's masque is a good piece but this performance was hardly a convincing case for it. The Dunedin Consort is not the discovery of the century which I want to see again in this festival at all costs. In the first part of the programme they performed instrumental works by Henry Lawes, Locke and Gibbons and vocal works by Ward and Weelkes. The latter two deserve more attention and that goes especially for Ward who was almost completely absent from the festival's programme. I liked the ensemble better here than in Blow, although once again the vibrato of some singers damaged the overall impact of this part of the concert.
I have already noticed that the harpsichord music is a relatively neglected genre in Purcell's oeuvre. One could also mention the solo songs; as far as I know only one complete recording exists (Hyperion). The songs we usually hear are taken from his music for the stage; these were published separately after his death under the title Orpheus Brittanicus. Some of these were performed during the concert under the same title by the soprano Dorothee Mields and the recorder player Stefan Temmingh, with Axel Wolf (lute) and Sebastian Wienand (harpsichord) . The most famous piece was The plaint: O let me weep from The Fairy Queen which was excellently sung by Ms Mields. It is usually performed with the obbligato instrumental part played on the violin, but here it was the recorder, in line with views of the British musicologist Peter Holman. From the same work we heard Ye gentle spirits of the air as well as Celia hath a thousand charmes from The Rival Sister. Mields and Temmingh also performed a nice short cantata by Johann Christoph Pepusch, Corydon. William Babell specialized in the arrangement of compositions by others, such as opera arias by Handel. His arrangements were strongly critisized by Charles Burney for a lack of "taste, expression, harmony or modulation". He stated that Babell "at once gratifies idleness and vanity". That also goes for his arrangements of Corelli's violin sonatas op. 5. Temmingh played the 10th in F; it is a piece of stupendous virtuosity and Temmingh played it brilliantly, but the musical value of the original surpasses that of the arrangement by far. Even so, it is good that such a piece is performed as it gives some idea of Babell's practices and also bears witness to Corelli's popularity in England. And if it is to be played, Temmingh is the man to do it. It was a most entertaining hour of music, but one hour was just enough.
One could argue that Blow's Venus and Adonis is an opera, but he himself called it a masque. That leaves Purcell's Dido and Aeneas as the first 'real' opera in English history. It is one of the great masterpieces in history and is frequently performed and recorded. From that perspective a performance during the festival was a little superfluous, especially as there are parts of Purcell's oeuvre which are hardly known, and that includes some of his music for the theatre. The honour of performing Dido and Aeneas was conferred upon Christina Pluhar who had the good idea of asking the Argentinian soprano Mariana Flores to sing the title role . I know her as a very expressive singer and I looked forward to her performance. She lived up to the expectations as she managed to fully explore the emotional twists and turns of her character. The closing aria of Dido, When I am laid in earth, received a highly expressive and incisive performance. Unfortunately her efforts were completely destroyed by the eccentricities we are almost going to expect from Pluhar. It was a half-scenic performance and the staging was utterly distasteful. I have no idea why the witches should look and act as prostitutes and why they should suggest they can't sing properly. The 'reconstruction' of the prologue of which no music has survived, was knocked together from various sources, some without any historical connotation, like some jazzy interpolations. These also popped up in the opera itself. And then there were some interventions from Vincenzo Capezzuto, acting like a transvestite. It made no sense at all. In the light of this, does it really matter that the playing in the prologue was sometimes out of tune? And what business does a cornett have in Dido and Aeneas? There was also a double bass in the ensemble, although it is known that such instruments were not used in Purcell's time. Either Pluhar doesn't care or she needed it for her jazzy extravaganzas. This performance had nothing to do with historical performance practice. It was also an expression of a lack of respect for Purcell. Christina Pluhar presented a kind of musical selfie: look at me! The performance as a whole was a disgrace.
Let me end on a positive note. Fabio Bonizzoni gave a performance of the opera Semele by John Eccles . This work was intended to be performed at the opening of the Haymarket Theatre in London in 1705. But Eccles finished the composition only two years later, and at that time Italian opera had already established itself. As a result Semele was never performed. It seems odd to ask Italians to perform an English opera, but it turned out well. I was more impressed by this performance than by the Dunedin Consort's account of Blow's Venus and Adonis. The playing of La Risonanza was more colourful and had more zip and the work's dramatic character was fully explored. The soloists gave good accounts of their respective roles. From a stylistic point of view I was a little less enthusiastic. I find it disappointing that the interpreter of the title role, Stefanie True, whom I have admired in concerts and recordings for her stylish singing, has since adopted a considerable vibrato. That was especially notable in forte passages. The same goes for some of her colleagues. It doesn't diminish my appreciation of this performance in which the considerable qualities of this work were clearly exposed. Semele is a substantial work, well worth being performed once in a while in the opera theatres. Let us hope Bonizzoni will have the opportunity to record it on disc.
Time for a final verdict on this year's festival. Its concept was worked out well and the quality of the concerts I have attended was generally very high. There were some disappointments which I have described above, but that is all part of a festival of this size. The only really bad performance was Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. One could argue that probably too many well-known pieces were performed, such as the latter and also King Arthur and the Odes for St Cecilia's Day by Purcell, and lute songs by Dowland. Some parts of Purcell's oeuvre are hardly known, such as his solo songs, but also some theatre music and many of his anthems. I have already mentioned some composers who didn't receive attention, such as John Ward. There were more composers of lute songs than Dowland. The latter also composed some sacred works, and in the 17th century several composers wrote religious music for domestic performance, such as the Lawes brothers. Pelham Humfrey is a most interesting composer who was absent in the programme. And we have hardly heard any consort music by Christopher Tye whose output in this department is substantial. But even a packed festival of ten days can't cover the complete spectrum of English music of the renaissance and baroque periods.
Vox Luminis was this year's artist in residence and that was well deserved. It fully lived up to the expectations; all its concerts rank among the best in the festival and the ensemble has to be considered one of the best in the early music scene.
Next year the theme is La Serenissima, with special attention to Adrian Willaert and the sacred music by Vivaldi. That is something to look forward to.
Johan van Veen (© 2015)
Top of page