musica Dei donum
Festival Early Music Utrecht 2018
Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four
"A Burgundian Alphabet in three concerts" 
Huelgas Ensemble/Paul Van Nevel
24 August, Jacobikerk
"Joyous Entrance" 
Vox Luminis/Lionel Meunier
24 August, Cathedral
Bob van Asperen, harpsichord
24 August, Geertekerk
24 August, Nicolaïkerk
Cantica Symphonia/Giuseppe Maletto
24 August, Catharinakerk
"Cluniacs: Benedictines in Cluny" 
Ordo Virtutum/Stefan Johannes Morent
25 August, Willibrordkerk
"Josquin in Spain: Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae 
Música Temprana/Adrián Rodríguez van der Spoelr
25 August, Jacobikerk
"Requiem: Ockeghem, La Rue" 
Diabolus in Musica/Antoine Guerber
27 August, Pieterskerk
Josquin Desprez: Missa L'homme armé 6. toni 
Vox Luminis/Lionel Meunier
28 August, Jacobikerk
Josquin Desprez: Missa Ave maris stella 
Weser-Renaissance Bremen/Manfred Cordes
29 August, Jacobikerk
Josquin Desprez: Missa Malheur me bat 
Gli Angeli Genève/Stephan MacLeod
30 August, Cathedral
Josquin Desprez: Missa Gaudeamus 
31 August, Jacobikerk
Richafort: Requiem 
Cappella Mariana/Vojtech Semerád
1 September, Pieterskerk
Among lovers of early music there is always a debate about what exactly 'early music' is. For some 'early music' means music of the Middle Ages and (early) renaissance, others include music of the baroque and even classical periods. Today the term is generally used for music of all ages, performed on period instruments. That is reflected in the programmes of the Festival Early Music Utrecht. This year Olga Pashchenko played pieces by Debussy and Ravel on the fortepiano, in combination with harpsichord works by François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau. The latter two are two of the composers who were given special attention in this year's edition of the Utrecht festival.
The programme of the festival was entitled 'Burgundian life', which most lovers of early music associate with the golden age of Burgundy, from the second half of the 14th to the early 16th century. However, as Rameau was from the Burgundian town of Dijon, he is a late representative of that region, even though he spent the main part of his life - as a composer of operas - in Paris. It made sure that this year's programme was not confined to the music of the renaissance, with Josquin Desprez as composer in residence, undoubtedly to the relief of those who prefer later repertoire.
The opening of the festival was rather unusual. Every year the historical bells of the Cathedral tower announce the start of the festival, and then the first concert takes place in the large hall of TivoliVredenburg. This year there was a kind of prelude: in the afternoon the Huelgas Ensemble  performed three programmes with sacred and secular polyphony by composers who in one way or another can be connected to the Burgundian golden age. The ensemble's director, Paul Van Nevel, is intimately acquainted with the repertoire, but even he must have done a lot of research, putting together the programme, especially as it was his aim to present an alphabetical overview. The first concert started with a chanson by an Anonymous composer and ended with another piece by an unknown composer, indicated as 'without a name' (Zonder naam in Dutch). He could not find a composer whose name starts with an X; this letter was omitted. As there is also no composer with a K, he attributed another anonymous piece to a certain Jehan Kwintens. The music was written in a period of about 150 years, which means that we heard quite some stylistic differences, for instance between the 3-part ballade Roses et lis ay veu by a certain Egidius (fl c1380) on the one hand and the Sanctus from the Missa Sub tuum presidium by Pierre de La Rue on the other. The first concert opened with the anonymous chanson Ou lit de pleurs, in which an unhappy lover laments about his fate, brilliantly translated in music. Several compositional forms were represented, such as alternatim pieces and liturgical chants with additional texts (tropes). The Huelgas Ensemble proved once again to be a top-class ensemble. Paul Van Nevel is not a man of broad gestures; he rather treats the repertoire as vocal chamber music. A number of pieces were performed with one voice per part, in others a larger part of the ensemble or even the entire group came into action. Through a differentiation in the line-up Van Nevel achieved a perfect blending of and balance between the voices. His treatment of dynamics was very subtle, and the intonation was impeccable, as always. It was the best possible start of the festival.
Instead of the evening concert the festival had come up with the idea of a 'joyous entrance' , referring to a habit in the time of the Burgundian rulers. Four short concerts took place across the historical town centre, and the audience was asked to walk from one venue to the other, sometimes meeting each other halfway. The four concerts reflected the various themes of this year's festival. Vox Luminis performed Lalande and Rameau; the latter was represented by a motet which has been reconstructed by Graham Sadler. Bob van Asperen and Paolo Zanzu played harpsichord pieces by Couperin - who was born 1668, which is commemorated this year - whereas Graindelavoix, directed by Björn Schmelzer, and Cantica Symphonia, directed by Giuseppe Maletto, performed sacred music by Josquin and his contemporaries, among them Antoine Busnoys. The latter ensemble did well in two sections from Busnoys' Missa L'homme armé, but the performance was a little undifferentiated. I also had my doubts about the use of instruments here, and in particular the combination of two sackbuts, fiddle and organ. I attended the recital by Bob van Asperen, who delivered a stylish performance of pieces from Couperin's Ordes V, VI and XXIII, with a subtle application of notes inégales. The contribution of Vox Luminis was very good, but suffered from the large reverberation of the Cathedral, which resulted in too many details getting lost.
On almost every day of the festival a mass by Josquin Desprez was performed. However, let's turn first to plainchant: this is the very basis of Western sacred music, and therefore it made much sense to include some concerts with this kind of repertoire. The ensemble Ordo Virtutum, directed by Stefan Johannes Morent , was responsible for two concerts with plainchant, connected to the Benedictine Cluniacs and the Cistercians respectively. I heard the first of these two, in which the ensemble performed the main parts from the Officium transfigurationis - the Office for the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord - written by Petrus Venerabilis, abbot of the Cistercian convent in Cluny. The generally held view is that there is no such thing as text expression in plainchant. That is not incorrect, in that we can't expect things like the madrigalisms of 16th-century polyphony, let alone the kind of text illustration which became the norm in the baroque period. However, the twelve responsories which are part of this Office show quite some differentiation in the melodic discourse. When the text, for instance, refers to the majesty of the Lord as it manifests itself in his transfiguration, the melody moves upward. In other reponsories the melody moves in the lower part of the voice's range. Obviously this makes great demands upon the voice of the singer who takes care of those parts. The six voices of Ordo Virtutum blend perfectly, but in the solo sections the individual members proved that they met the requirements of the different responsories. One of them had a clear and strong voice with the tessitura of an haute-contre, whereas one of his colleagues had a strong low register. These qualities were effectively explored. Ordo Virtutum, who made its debut at the festival last year, is one of the best and most interesting ensembles for liturgical music. Unfortunately the early music community at large has not discovered it yet: the church was half empty.
Josquin was the most famous composer of his time and one of its most prolific and versatile. His name appeared frequently in programmes of secular music, but his masses were given special attention. Almost all of them are based on pre-existing material. Seven masses were performed on consecutuive days from the first Saturday to Friday. I have heard five of them.
Vox Luminis sang the Missa L'homme armé 6. toni . It is based on of the most popular songs of the time, whose origins are still unknown. It has been arranged numerous times and has been used as the starting point for many mass settings as well. Josquin incorporated the melody into his mass in various ways, but it is not always clearly recognizable for the listener. That was not Josquin's intention either: for a composer a pre-existing melody was in the first place a means of structuring a composition. Moreover, the singers who performed it will certainly have recognized the melody every time it turns up. The ten singers of Vox Luminis delivered an impressive performance, showing that they are equally at home in renaissance repertoire as in baroque music. Obviously there is no such thing as text expression in renaissance masses, but that is no reason to sing them in a straighforward manner. Vox Luminis was well aware of that: especially dynamics were effectively used to highlight elements in the text. In the four motets that preceded the mass, it also found the right approach. The perfect harmony between the voices came especially to the fore in the homophonic motet Tu solus qui facis mirabilia. In Huc me sydereo the tenor sings a different text (Plangent eum). In order to make this more clearly audible one of the tenors was standing in front of the ensemble to sing this part. I doubt that this made much difference; the part was hard to understand. But, as I already indicated with respect to the mass, it is unlikely that this was the composer's intention. After all, this is liturgical music, not intended for an audience, but directed towards God.
The Missa Ave maris stella is based on a Marian hymn of the 9th century. This preceded Josquin's mass in the performance of the ensemble Weser-Renaissance Bremen, directed by Manfred Cordes . The whole programme was devoted to the veneration of Mary, which takes an important place in Josquin's oeuvre. The concert opened with his most famous work, the four-part motet Ave Maria, which was performed with one voice per part. In contrast, the mass was sung with two voices per part. Although no attempt was made at a liturgical reconstruction of some sort, the parts of the mass were separated by motets, in the same way as would have been the case in a mass. After Kyrie and Gloria we heard Illibata Dei virgo nutrix, the Credo was followed by Virgo prudentissima and the concert closed with the Salve Regina. Although the ensemble's line-up was not fundamentally different from that of Vox Luminis, there was an important difference in that in the latter's performance the upper voice was sung by women, whereas in Weser-Renaissance this was taken care of by two male altos: Alex Potter and Franz Vitzthum. In my experience it is almost inevitable that such voices dominate the sound of the ensemble, and that was no different here, especially as Potter and Vitzthum have pretty strong and penetrating voices. They were clearly audible - a bit too clearly, in my opinion. Vox Luminis was more convincing with regard to ensemble as it seems more of a fixed group than Weser-Renaissance, which often performs with different singers, albeit from a carefully selected reservoire. But the balance between the various voice groups was not as good as in Vox Luminis. That said, there was little wrong with the interpretation. The alternation of mass movements and motets created more of a liturgical atmosphere than Vox Luminis's performance, which was rather a concert for a modern audience.
The ensemble Gli Angeli Genève, directed by Stephan MacLeod , is mainly known for its performances of 17th- and 18th-century repertoire. In this series of Josquin's masses it sang the Missa Malheur me bat, which is based on a popular chanson, whose composer once again is not known. It was performed at the Cathedral, and although I could understand the performance pretty well, I was seated too far back to be able to hear many details. The nine singers (soprano, two mezzo-sopranos, two haute-contres, two tenors, baritone and two basses) acted like a real ensemble, even though they - as far as I know - don't regularly sing together. I was especially surprised by the presence of the haute-contre Samuel Boden and the tenor Andrew Tortise, whom I don't associate with this kind of music. Whereas in the past I have noted some vibrato in Tortise's solo performances, there was nothing of this kind which damaged the ensemble. The mass as well as the motet Praeter rerum seriem and the penitential psalm Miserere mei Deus were given fine performances, and the ensemble did have no problem with the large space of the Cathedral. That it was filled to the brim certainly helped to confine the effects of its large reverberation.
Just like Vox Luminis the British vocal ensemble stile antico  is a regular guest at the festival. It sang the Missa Gaudeamus, which is baed on the introitus for the Solemnity of All Saints. The parts of the mass were separated by other works, including the famous Ave Maria and the Salve Regina, both having been performed previously in this series. On the one hand that allowed for a comparison of the various performances, on the other side a chance was missed to perform a wider choice from Josquin's sacred oeuvre. The way the mass movements were separated had nothing to do with liturgical practice: Kyrie and Gloria which in mass are sung without interruption, were interspersed here by the motet Gaude Maria mater Christi. Comprising twelve voices stile antico is larger than both Vox Luminis and Weser-Renaissance, which almost inevitably results in a more dense and less transparent sound. Sometimes I found the performances a bit too massive and too straightforward. However, considering the size of the ensemble, one has to admire its flexibility and the excellent balance between the various voice groups. This is very much a fixed ensemble and that shows. No singer is out of step with the others through a penetrating tone or a clearly audible vibrato. The consistency of the interpretation was admirable.
The ensemble Música Temprana, directed by Adrián Rodríguez van der Spoel, came up with what was the most unconventional contribution to the series, when it performed Josquin's Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae . This may surprise those who know that this ensemble devotes itself to music from the Iberian peninsula and Latin America. However, that was not any different this time: Josquin's music was very popular in Spain in the 16th century and pieces from his pen were frequently transcribed for vihuela, sometimes with one vocal part. One of his admirers was Francesco Guerrero, who ordered some choirbooks with Josquin's music to be restored. It therefore made much sense that two of his own pieces were included in the programme, together with a motet by Victoria. As Van der Spoel had chosen to perform Josquin's mass within a liturgical framework, we also heard some plainchant. What we got was Josquin as seen through the eyes of Spanish performers of the 16th century. Therefore the voices were supported by wind instruments - shawm, two sackbuts and dulcian - and organ. According to Van der Spoel this is in line with Spanish convention at the time. However, this view is not shared by every scholar and performer. That said, the instruments added some colour to the voices. Not that they needed that: the singers of this ensemble are colourful enough without instrumental support. It was a most interesting and compelling concert, thanks to the music, but also to the outstanding performances by singers and instrumentalists.
Death was an everyday experience in the life of people of the renaissance. It often appears in both sacred and secular repertoire. Laments on the death of rulers or of composers could therefore not be omitted from the programme. In the second part of this review I will turn to some concerts where such repertoire was performed, but in this part I focus on two concerts which were devoted to Requiem Masses. The first included two settings, which are from about the same time, written by Johannes Ockeghem and Pierre de La Rue respectively. Ockeghem was one of the main composers of the generation before Josquin, and highly admired. The latter composed a moving lament on the death of Ockeghem, whose Requiem is among his most famous works. However, it would be an exaggeration to say that it is frequently performed today, and the same can be said about La Rue's setting. Therefore the performances by the ensemble Diabolus in Musica, directed by Antoine Guerber  were an important contribution to this year's festival. The texts were printed separately in the textbook, because Requiems often differ with regard to the parts which have been set polyphonically. In Ockeghem's Requiem, the Kyrie is followed by the graduale Si ambulem, in La Rue by the offertory Domine Jesu Christi, which closes Ockeghem's Requiem. He did set the tract Sicut cervus, which is missing from La Rue's Requiem. Both compositions are darkly coloured, thanks to the emphasis on the low voices. This explained the predominance of such voices in the ensemble, which consisted of an alto, two tenors, a baritone, a bass-baritone and two basses. This resulted in a sonorous sound which had a maximum effect in the medieval Pieterskerk. Last year I heard this ensemble with a programme of music from the time of the Avignon papacy. I was not very impressed, especially because one of the tenors produced a penetrating sound and used quite a bit of vibrato. He was not part of the ensemble this time, and therefore its sound was more homogeneous. Moreover, the acoustics of the Pieterskerk are much more favourable for this kind of repertoire than the church of the Moravian Brothers in Zeist, where the previous concert took place. Now and then I found the volume a bit too loud; in this church one does not have to sing that loudly to be heard in the back rows.
For me the festival ended on the second Saturday, late at night, with another Requiem, this time a setting for six voices by Jean Richafort. He was a pupil of Josquin and composed this work at the occasion of his teacher's death. As a tribute to him he included a melody from Josquin's chanson Faulte d'argent as a cantus firmus. This Requiem is a beautiful work, restrained but incisive, and was given an outstanding performance by the Cappella Mariana, directed by Vojtech Semerád . I had heard it previously in a concert of motets on texts from the Song of Songs. It made a strong impression on me, and that was confirmed during this concert. The ensemble consists of very nice voices and the balance between the voice groups was excellent. In fact, of all the ensembles with male altos in the upper part this was the only one in which the alto did not dominate. The relaxed manner of singing of the ensemble's alto, Daniel Elgersma, helped to ensure that the lower voices were not overpowered. This Requiem was a worthy tribute to the man, who was one of the main composers of this festival.
"Burgundian Laments" 
25 August, Janskerk
"The Leuven Chansonnier" 
Sollazzo Ensemble/Anna Danilevskaia
27 August, Pieterskerk
"Woman in front: from Marian motet to love song" 
Servir Antico/Catalina Vicens
28 August, Pieterskerk
"The blind fiddle players of the Burgundian court" 
Sollazzo Ensemble/Anna Danilevskaia
29 August, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
Variations on 'De tous bien playne' 
Doulce Mémoire/Denis Raisin Dadre
30 August, Gasthuis Leeuwenbergh
"Le chant de leschiquier" 
Tasto Solo/Guillermo Pérez
30 August, Pieterskerk
"Josquin Desprez: The game of imitation" 
Cappella Pratensis/Stratton Bull
30 August, Jacobikerk
"Bruges: The Burgundian metropole" 
31 August, Pieterskerk
La Rue, Josquin, Desprez, Brumel: "Déplorations" 
Tasto Solo/Guillermo Pérez
31 August, Pieterskerk
"Right from the heart: The Chansonnier Cordiforme" 
Ensemble Leones/Marc Lewon
1 September, Pieterskerk
"La dolce vista: The world of Dufay" 
Ensemble Lucidarium/Avery Gosfield
1 September, Geertekerk
In the first part of this review I already referred to the laments on the death of rulers or composers which were written during the renaissance. This could take the form of a Requiem, but some laments are a mixture of sacred and secular elements, showing that at that time there was no watershed between the two worlds. Two concerts were devoted to this kind of repertoire. Both Graindelavoix and Tasto Solo performed Burgundian laments, also known as déplorations.
Graindelavoix, directed by Björn Schmelzer , is a unique voice in the chorus of early music ensembles. Some love its approach, others loathe it. The performances during the 'joyous entrance' were not too bad, but I was far less happy with its performances during the concert devoted to 'Burgundian laments'. The programme was quite interesting, as it not only included laments on the death of particular people, but also chansons about unhappy love. The concert opened with specimens of the latter: five chansons by Gilles Binchois, with titles like Triste plaisir and Adieu mon amoureuse joye. The purely sacred was represented with motets by Pierre de La Rue (Doleo super te and Delicta juventutis). In addition to Josquin Desprez' Déploration sur la mort de Ockeghem, with the text "Nymphes des bois", in which the composers of the time are urged to shed tears on the death of the famous composer, we also heard Ockeghem's lament on the death of Binchois, which has a French and a Latin text (Mort, tu as navre/Miserere). Josquin's lament I did not hear, as at the time of performance I had already left the church. The programme lasted about 90 minutes, and at midnight Grandelavoix was just beginning with the last two items. The length of the programme was largely due to the generally and uniformly pretty slow tempi. I could not quite figure out what the singers were doing with the pieces they had selected, as I could understand very little of the text from where I was seated, and the darkness in the church did not allow to read the programme. It seems that Schmelzer and his colleagues treated the pieces with a large amount if freedom. Two features were noticeable: first the often large and sudden dynamic outbursts, the reasons for which I could not figure out and which got on my nerves after a while, and the often rough edges in the sound the ensemble produces. Some of its members come from the world of ethnic music, and that shows - not in a positive way, as far as I am concerned. Schmelzer's approach to renaissance polyphony does not convince me at all, and often their performances are simply annoying, as was the case here.
I was much more pleased with the performances of the ensemble Tasto Solo, directed by Guillermo Pérez , although there was reason for some criticism. The programme was built around Margaret of Austria, governor of the Habsburg Netherlands, whose life was marked by tragedies. It gave her the nickname dame de dueil. Most of the pieces that were performed, were from a songbook dedicated to her, which was part of her private library. One of these is Josquin's lamentation on the death of Margaret's father, Emperor Maximilian I (Proch dolor/Pie Jhesu). Pierre de La Rue's motet Doleo super me refers to the death of Margaret's brother, Philip the Fair. La Rue also wrote the music for Pour ung jamais, the text of which probably is from Margaret's own pen. The programme ended with Cueurs desolez, an impressive motet attributed to La Rue and probably an ode to John of Luxemburg († 1508). It was a compelling programme which gave a good impression of the various ways people dealt with the death of their loved ones. As in the concert of Graindelavoix this concert once again showed the natural blending of the sacred and the secular. On the whole the interpretations were convincing, also thanks to the nice voices of the singers: Barbara Zanichelli, Anne-Kathryn Olsen, Albert Riera, Riccardo Pisani and Tomàs Maxé. However, in the lament on the death of Ockeghem the tempo seemed a bit too high to me, especially in the last part. There were some shaky moments in the contributions of the sopranos and the ensemble left something to be desired, probably because the singers are not a fixed group.
That probably can be explained by the fact that this ensemble's focus is the role of keyboard instruments in the renaissance rather than music for voices. Among the instruments the ensemble uses in its performances are an organetto and a hammered clavisimbalum. The latter is supposed to be the instrument which in the renaissance was referred to as eschiquier; the title of the other concert of the ensemble was called "the sound of the eschiquier" . Obviously Burgundy took a central place in the programme: in addition to anonymous pieces we heard compositions by Dufay, Binchois and Bruolo, as well as by Bedyngham and Dunstaple, two English composers, who influenced the first generation of Franco-Flemish composers. Instrumental music from the renaissance is mostly played on recorders, fiddles, gambas or plucked instruments. The organetto and the hammered clavisimbalum represent a different sound world and shed light on the importance of keyboard instruments at that time; the Buxheimer Orgelbuch testifies to that. They, as well as fiddle and lute, also performed together with the soprano Barbara Zanichelli, who sang with a clear and penetrating voice, although again not entirely free from some insecurities. The programme was a mixture of unknown and rather well-known items. An example of the latter was Dufay's beautiful song Se la face ay pale; how nice was it to hear it again.
The ensemble Servir Antico, directed by Catalina Vicens , always comes up with interesting programmes, mostly thematic. The programme in this year's festival was entitled "Woman in front: from Marian motet to love song". It took its starting point in a book by the poet Martin le Franc (c1410-1460), which he dedicated to Philip the Good: Le Champion des Dames. "He defends the feminine virtues and punctuates his poem with mythological and historical stories about women," as Vicens wrote in the programme notes. The concert covered the entire Golden Age of Burgundy, with pieces from Johannes Tapissier (c1370-1410) to Hayne van Ghizeghem (c1445-1476/97). Vicens is the founder and leader of the ensemble and played herself a beautiful portative and a slightly larger organ in the appropriate tuning, which leads to quite peculiar harmonies. With Sophi Patsi and Lieselot de Wilde she had two excellent singers at her disposal; their voices matched perfectly, despite being very different: one rather light and high, the other stronger and dark-coloured. In addition, Michael Grébil, who played lute and fiddle, also delivered some vocal contributions. All in all it was a most captivating concert, because of the excellent performances and the music, with lovely pieces by composers such as Dufay, Binchois, Fontaine and Solage. Tapissier's chanson Eya dulcis had also been performed by the Huelgas Ensemble. Which performance came closer to historical reality is impossible to say. I appreciated both interpretations; here the advantage was that it was put into a thematic context, which was missing in the Huelgas Ensemble's performance.
One of the features of the renaissance is that some melodies were frequently arranged by various composers across Europe and appear in many different forms. On Thursday two concerts were devoted to this subject. First the ensemble Doulce Mémoire, directed by Denis Raisin Dadre , performed a programme devoted to just one chanson: De tous bien playne. It was originally written by Hayne van Ghizeghem, who was employed by Charles the Bold (1433-1477), Duke of Burgundy. This piece opened the programme and was followed by various arrangements, by Josquin, Alexander Agricola, Johannes Tinctoris, Crispin van Stappen - a rather unknown quantity - and anonymous composers. One way of arranging a song was the addition of a new text, for instance Beati pacifici - words from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and probably the incipit of a chant - in Van Stappen's arrangement. The programme ended with another specimen of such a procedure: an anonymous composer mixed Ghizeghem's chanson with J'ay pris amour; this was preceded by various arrangements of this chanson. Some of the arrangements were performed instrumentally, on recorders, shawm, dulcian and viole da gamba. In others one part was sung by the alto Paulin Bündgen, who has exactly the right voice for this kind of repertoire and who rightly avoided extensive ornamentation. It was a most enjoyable concert, the only disadvantage being that both songs are real earworms.
The concert by the Cappella Pratensis, directed by Stratton Bull , later that day was in fact a kind of sequel to Doulce Mémoire's performances. It was entitled "Josquin Desprez: the game of imitation" and was divided into two halves. In the first we heard Josquin's arrangements of pieces by other composers, whereas in the second half the ensemble performed original compositions by Josquin and arrangements by others. In his Easter motet Victimae paschali laudes Josquin used the material from two chansons, D'ung aultre amer by Ockeghem and De tous bien playne by Ghizeghem. Next came the famous song Fortuna desperata, attributed to Busnoys, and the Kyrie from Josquin's Missa Fortuna desperata. The first part ended with Ockeghem's song Petite camusette, whose four parts were extended to six by Josquin; he also deleted the second text of the original piece. In the second half Josquin's own chanson Faulte d'argent was followed by Adrian Willaert's arrangement, and Mille regretz, attributed to Josquin, by an arrangement by Nicolas Gombert. The programme closed with Josquin's motet Praeter rerum seriem and the Agnus Dei from Cipriano de Rore's Missa Preter rerum seriem. We know the Cappella Pratensis in the first place as an ensemble for sacred music, but in recent years the ensemble has increasingly turned to secular music as well. It was interesting to see how the sacred and the secular items were treated in different ways. Sacred music is always performed with the singers standing around a choirbook; that was the case in this concert as well. Obviously that makes no sense in secular music; that was sung in a more 'conventional' way, as the singers stood side by side at the stage. The eight singers excelled in both genres; the secular items were rightly performed with one voice per part. The balance within the ensemble was good, but the alto Andrew Hallock, a singer with a high and penetrating voice, was sometimes a bit too dominant.
Instrumental music played a rather minor role during the renaissance period. Relatively little music was specifically written for instrumental performance. However, that does not mean that instrumentalists were not appreciated. The Sollazzo Ensemble  payed tribute to fiddle players, who were held in high esteem by the best composers of their time. Jehan Ferrandes and Jehan de Cordoval were both blind, and as fiddle players in the service of the Burgundian court they made a huge impression on Dufay and Binchois. Their meeting was described by the above-mentioned Martin le Franc in his book Le Champion des Dames. Ferrandes had two sons, who were also blind but were as talented as their father. The programme performed by the Sollazzo Ensemble consisted of works by composers who stood in contact with either the father or his two sons. It opened with Dufay's moving lamentation on the fall of Constantinople, O tres piteulx. We also heard anonymous pieces from the Cyprus Codex and the Bayeux Chansonnier. Binchois was represented with his chanson Triste plaisir. That was also performed earlier by Graindelavoix. Although one can not really compare a purely vocal performance, as that of Graindelavoix, with a performance by one voice and two fiddles, I found the Sollazzo Ensemble's performance much more convincing, largely thanks to far better singing. One of the highlights was the famous Vergine bella by Dufay, beautifully sung by Yukie Sato, later joined by Perrine Devillers. Alexander Agricola wrote an instrumental piece dedicated to the fiddle-playing brothers, which was performed here with a spiritual text, Ave ancilla. The concert ended with a humorous chanson by Loyset Compère, Le grant désir me tient, in a more or less theatrical way executed by the two sopranos and the tenor Vivien Simon. Once again the Sollazzo Ensemble proved to be one of the most interesting and musically most convincing ensembles for renaissance music.
They showed that too in their second concert, which was devoted to the Leuven Chansonnier , which has been discovered only a couple of years ago and includes a number of pieces, that are not known from any other source. Leuven was part of the Burgundian Netherlands, and therefore it was appropriate to present a selection from this songbook, which was premiered by the ensemble in July 2017 in New York. The songbook contains a number of pieces by composers who have worked at the Burgundian court, such as Ockeghem and Binchois. Both were represented in the programme, but we also heard some anonymous pieces and compositions by little-known masters such as Michelet and Gilles Mureau; the former is not even mentioned in New Grove. It was another outstanding effort by the Sollazzo Ensemble, whose singers and instrumentalists are a real ensemble, and who know exactly how to bring this repertoire across. This fascinating programme could not have been presented in a more convincing manner. We certainly are going to hear a lot more from these artists.
That concert shed light on an important aspect of music life in the renaissance. The Leuven Chansonnier is just one of many songbooks, which included then popular songs, but often also unknown gems by composers who are little known or have remained anonymous. Two other such songbooks were presented during the festival. One of them was the Chansonnier Cordiforme; the name literally means 'heart-shaped codex': if it is opened, it forms two connected hearts. It includes works by some of the most famous composers of the 15th century, such as Ockeghem and Dufay, but also a number of anonymous pieces. Some of the items are only represented here. Moreover, the importance of this songbook lies in the fact that here not only the upper voice, but also the tenor - and sometimes the contratenor - is texted. The chanson which was performed a number of times during the festival, Ghizeghem's De tous bien playne, is also included in the songbook. The musicians of the Ensemble Leones, directed by Marc Lewon , had made a nice and varied choice, which was excellently performed. Els Janssens-van Munster, Raitis Grigalis and Mathias Spoerry have the ideal voices for this repertoire. Particularly impressive was the combination of fiddle and lira da braccio, played by Baptiste Romain, and the voice of the soprano. Elizabeth Rumsey (viola d'arco) and Marc Lewon (viola d'arco and lute) also played their part in this concert, which was an enjoyable contribution to the festival's programme.
The ensemble ClubMediéval, directed by Thomas Baeté , also presented music from songbooks. However, this time it was not music which was performed in aristocratic circles, but rather among the bourgeoisie. Some of the texts are in Dutch, others in French. One of the sources is the so-called Gruuthuse manuscript. Although some of the songs show the influence of art song, overall they are less sophisticated, both with regard to texts as to music. Obviously this means that they should be performed in a different way. Some songs were executed in a more or less theatrical manner. It is not so easy to find the right approach to this kind of repertoire. It should be not too refined, but also not vulgar. To find the golden mean is not so easy. That showed; overall I was not that happy with this concert. That is partly personal: this repertoire has no particular appeal to me, especially because of the content of some texts. Unfortunately the texts were often hard to understand, largely due to the acoustic of the Pieterskerk. This kind of songs require more intimate surroundings. The vocal contributions were not always satisfying. One of the best pieces in the programme was the famous Par maintes foys/der may mit liber zal, a chanson originally composed by Johannes Vaillant, arranged by Oswald von Wolkenstein. The song Ach Vlaendere vrie by Thomas Fabri, which closed the concert, was sung nicely. It was certainly justified to pay attention to this kind of repertoire, as it sheds light on music life among the lower social strata. It is just too bad that the concert could not really satisfy.
However, the by far least satisfying concert took place on the last Saturday, when the Ensemble Lucidarium, directed by Avery Gosfield , performed a programme under the title "La dolce vista - the world of Dufay". One could call the programme 'popular'. The selected pieces were apparently approached from the angle of 'folk music'. Whether that approach is justified is hard to decide. As I wrote about the concert of ClubMediéval: it is not easy to find the right way to perform more or less 'popular' music. In this case I did not really enjoy myself. The instrumental pieces were performed rather loudly, with prominent percussion, and with a variety of instruments. I have some doubts about that, but at least the instruments were played well. I was less impressed by the singers. The tenor Enea Sorini was excellent, but the two sopranos fell short of the standard of the festival. They were just too often out of tune and out of sinc. I sometimes found it rather painful to listen to.
"Rameau à deux" 
Pierre Hantaï, Skip Sempé, harpsichord
25 August, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
Rameau: "Grands Motets" 
Vox Luminis/Lionel Meunier
25 August, TivoliVredenburg
Rameau: Pièces de clavecin en concerts 
Ensemble Masques/Olivier Fortin
28 August, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
Rameau: Les Boréades 
Soloists, Collegium Vocale 1704, Collegium 1704/Václav Luks
29 August, TivoliVredenburg
"The organist Rameau: The lost oeuvre" 
Benjamin Alard, organ
31 August, Tuindorpkerk
"Diptych à la française: Rameau and Duphly" 
Laurent Stewart, harpsichord
31 August, Lutheran Church
Those music lovers who prefer music of the 17th and 18th centuries to medieval and renaissance music certainly hove a sigh of relief, when they learnt that two of the main French composers of those centuries were to figure prominently in this year's festival. In the case of Jean-Philippe Rameau, the fact that he was born in the Burgundian town of Dijon induced the festival to make him one of the composers in residence. As François Couperin was born in 1668, 350 years ago, he obviously could not be overlooked, much like Georg Philipp Telemann in last year's edition.
Rameau is best known for his operas. However, his first opera was performed when he was already 50 years of age. It is often overlooked that he started as an organist. Unfortunately no organ works from his pen have come down to us. There is a good chance that he never brought anything to paper. After all, organists were expected to improvise, and there was little need for printed organ music. What has been handed down to us in printed editions was primarily intended as instruction material for organists, who themselves did not yet possess such skills, or as a sort of portfolio of composers to show what they were capable of. Under the title "The organist Rameau: The lost oeuvre" Benjamin Alard played a programme of pieces by Rameau . Considering that a number of dances in his operas were originally conceived as harpsichord pieces, Alard hypothesized that some other pieces may first have served as organ works. Obviously this is impossible to prove, but it resulted in a nice recital at the organ of the Tuindorpkerk, just outside the town centre. In order to put Rameau as an organist into a historical perspective, Alard opened with a prelude by Louis Couperin and transcriptions of two works by François Couperin: the sonata La Sultane and a movement from the Suite in e minor for viola da gamba and basso continuo. He then played two of the Pièces de clavecin en concerts (II and V), separated by a fragment from the opera Hippolyte et Aricie. In some pieces Alard used characteristic registrations known from French organ music, such as récit de tierce en taille and récit de cromorne en taille. The compositions Alard had chosen worked surprisingly well on the organ. That is partly due to the instrument: although not a genuine French organ, its disposition offers the player enough possibilities to realise a truly French sound. which showed that it is indeed suitable for French repertoire. Alard delivered an outstanding performance and managed to give the impression that the pieces by Rameau were indeed intended for the organ.
That same day Rameau was also the key figure in a harpsichord recital by Laurent Stewart . It was the last in a series; the previous recitals showed the stylistic development from Couperin's first harpsichord book to his fourth. Stewart played pieces from Rameau's Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin, which were published in 1728, two years before Couperin's fourth book. It includes a few dances, but they - like most character pieces - often have a dramatic character, for instance through contrasts between the various sections. An example is the courante, the second piece in the programme. Those contrasts could have been a little stronger in Stewart's performance. He is not known as a very extroverted player, and therefore I was curious what he would make of this programme. I was not disappointed: pieces as Fanfarinette, La triomphante and Les sauvages came out well. Very nice was the musical conversation which Rameau depicts in L'entretien des muses. Some of the pieces refer to the theatre, such as L'Égyptienne, which concluded the recital. With pieces by Armand-Louis Couperin (1727-1789), grandson of Louis Couperin's brother François, and by Jacques Duphly, Stewart pointed in the direction of the style of the mid-18th century, when harpsichord pieces became increasingly spectacular and technically demanding. Especially Duphly's La Félix received a very good and really theatrical interpretation.
The connection between Rameau's harpsichord music and his operas was further explored by Pierre Hantaï and Skip Sempé . Rameau may have been already 50 years of age when his first opera was premiered, but there is every reason to say that he was in fact a man of the theatre by nature. That comes already to the fore in the music he composed before he wrote his first opera, for instance in his keyboard works and his motets. Pieces from Rameau's operas were played on two harpsichords by Pierre Hantaï and Skip Sempé. Arranging instrumental movements and arias from operas for keyboard was common practice in France; Jean-Henry d'Anglebert was the first, when he arranged fragments from operas by Jean-Baptiste Lully. Such arrangements were usually for one keyboard. In their transcriptions for two keyboards Hantaï and Sempé were inspired by François Couperin, who stated that he often played his own chamber music on two harpsichords with his pupils. The recital shed light on the similarity between Rameau's original keyboard works and these transcriptions. Many of his keyboard pieces are rather dramatic and it hardly surprises that he included some of them in his operas. In that respect he followed a route opposite to that of D'Anglebert. Hantaï and Sempé regularly play together; they already did so in an earlier edition of the festival. Their close cooperation resulted in a artistically consistent performance of the pieces they had chosen. Sometimes the tempi were very fast, at the cost of a clear articulation, but for sure they delivered a performance which did full justice to the dramatic nature of Rameau's music. They prepared the listener for what was to come later in the festival: a performance of Rameau's opera Les Boréades.
It is Rameau's last opera and dates from 1763; the composer died the next year. It is not clear whether it was performed in his lifetime; it has been suggested that the work may have failed to pass censorship because its content reflects the views of the Enlightenment. The performance by the Collegium 1704, conducted by Václav Luks , showed that this is a very modern work for its time, and bears some traces of the classical style. That comes to the fore, for instance, in the instrumental scoring: the orchestra includes two clarinets, and the two horns play a more prominent role than was common in the baroque era. Les Boréades is a tragédie lyyrique, but has little in common with older works in this genre, such as the operas by Lully or even early operas by Rameau himself. The performance was not staged, but as the staging of baroque operas in our time is mostly rather tasteless, there was no reason to regret that. I had been looking forward to this event, because I have rarely heard a Rameau opera live. Unfortunately I was rather disappointed about the performance.
There was nothing wrong with the orchestra - on the contrary. Collegium 1704 is an excellent ensemble and this event attested to that. The colourful score was brough to life in a most convincing way. The instrumental parts were often exciting, also thanks to the interpretation by Luks, which was rich in contrast. The often dramatic choruses came also perfectly off; the Collegium Vocale 1704 is an equal partner to the orchestra. It was - I would almost say, as to be expected - the soloists who went astray in their attempts to bring out the drama of the piece. Dramatically everything was fine; especially Deborah Cachet (Alphise), Caroline Weynants (Sémire) and Benoît Arnould (Adamas) made a good impression. However, it seems very hard to perform in dramatic manner and to sing consistently in the style of the time simultaneously. Almost all the singers used an amount of vibrato which is historically untenable. That includes those singers, whom I have heard in stylish performances on disc, such as Weynants and Arnould. The most painful contribution came from Juan Sancho, who sang the role of Abaris. When he made his first entrance, I had the impression that he was thinking to be in a Rossini opera. He produced the sound which one is used to hear in traditional performances of Italian 19th-century operas. I came to the conclusion that the part was too high for his tessitura. In loud passages he sounded rather stressed. Towards the end he sang softly, and then went half-hearted into his falsetto register, which was not a success. Such a thing was not appreciated in France in the 18th century anyway. The part of Abaris seems far better suited to an haute-contre, and Benedikt Kristjánsson, who sang the role of Calisis very well, would probably have been a better choice for this role. Overall there was much loud singing from the soloists and the choir. I feel that singers have the impression that they have to sing loudly in order to be audible across the hall, and then force themselves. There is no need for that; the acoustic of the large hall of TivoliVredenburg is good enough to be audible at a lower volume, assuming that the projection of the voice is good. At the end of the night I felt sorry for those who were close to the stage. They probably left the building with their ears burning.
One of the least-known parts of Rameau's oeuvre is his sacred music. The vocal and instrumental ensemble Vox Luminis, directed by Lionel Meunier , performed the three grands motets, which have been preserved complete: Deus noster refugium, Quam dilecta and In convertendo Dominus. Although these works have been recorded several times, it is probably fair to say that they are not that well known (the same can be said about the genre of the grand motet as such). They are certainly not as well-known as they should be, because the performances by Vox Luminis showed that they are simply masterpieces. They are settings of Psalms, and the way Rameau translates the contrasts within these Psalms into the music is very impressive. He does so with harmonic means but also through differences in tempo and metre as well as through his vocal and instrumental scoring. The three Psalms all open with expressive récits for a solo voice (haute-contre and soprano respectively), and in the course of the piece Rameau juxtaposes tutti sections with episodes for solo voice or for an ensemble of two to four voices. Add to that an number of instrumental obbligato parts, and one will understand that these motets are colourful and dramatic works. They are in no way inferior to Rameau's operas, even though they date from early in his career. Vox Luminis did them full justice; the tutti sections were brilliantly executed, both vocally and instrumentally, and the solo sections received incisive performances. Among the soloists - all members of the ensemble - Zsuzsi Tóth (soprano) and Jeffrey Thompson (haute-contre) particularly excelled, although the latter sometimes chopped his phrases a little and created some uncontrolled dynamic contrasts. Stefanie True and Sebastian Myrus were a little disappointing in their use of vibrato. That said, as far as the interpretation is concerned, these performances are hard to surpass, and one has to hope that Vox Luminis is going to record them in due course.
One of the characteristics of the festival is that often lesser known works are on the programme. Evergreens are generally avoided, but if Rameau is one of the composers in residence, one can hardly avoid a performance of some of his most popular works: the Pièces de clavecin en concerts. Moreover, it is not only through his operas that Rameau is a key figure in music history: these five concerts are also important in that they rank among the earliest pieces in history, in which the harpsichord is given an obbligato part. The Canadian Ensemble Masques  had the honour of performing these pieces, which consist of three movements, a clear token of the growing Italian influence in France. The members of the ensemble - Olivier Fortin (harpsichord), Anna Besson (traverso), Sophie Gent (violin) and Mélisande Corriveau (viola da gamba) - had chosen to perform the 3ème Concert last. It ends with a piece called tambourins which gives the performers the opportunity - or which they take as an excuse - to let their hair down. I am a bit sceptical about that. I don't see any reason why the tempo should be doubled in the repetition, as was the case here. Instead of the transverse flute Anna Besson used a piccolo in this movement; again I can't see any justification for that, and the instrument is certainly not indicated by Rameau. The harpsichord plays the main part in these pieces; Fortin did play that part well, but was a bit too restrained. The balance between the instruments may have been more satisfying, if the violin, the flute and the viol would not have been in front of the harpsichord. Otherwise there was not much to complain about as far as the actual playing is concerned. All four musicians delivered fine performances.
"Brunette, musette, vaudeville: The other Couperin" 
Le Caravansérail/Bertand Cuiller
27 August, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
F Couperin: Pieces de clavecin, premier livre 
Aurélien Delage, harpsichord
27 August, Lutheran Church
F Couperin: Second livre de pièces de clavecin 
Carole Cerasi, harpsichord
28 August, Lutheran Church
"Le Concert Royal de la Nuit: The King is dancing" 
Ensemble Correspondances/Sébastien Daucé
28 August, TivoliVredenburg
F Couperin: Troisiéme livre de piéces de clavecin 
Bertrand Cuiller, harpsichord
29 August, Lutheran Church
F Couperin: Quatriéme livre de piéces de clavecin 
Christophe Rousset, harpsichord
30 August, Lutheran Church
F Couperin: Leçons de Ténèbres 
Ricercar Consort/Philippe Pierlot
30 August, Pieterskerk
F Couperin: Les Nations 
Hespèrion XXI/Le Concert des Nations/Jordi Savall
31 August, TivoliVredenburg
F Couperin: Messe pour les couvents 
James Johnstone, organ; Les Meslanges/Thomas Van Essen
1 September, Tuindorpkerk
Lastly, François Couperin. He is one of the main composers from the time of the ancien régime, and for most of his life he was in the service of the court. At the same time, however, he was open to the influences of the Italian style, something which was - at least officially - not appreciated among the leading circles. His oeuvre is pretty well known, and some parts of it are frequently played, such as Les Nations, the Concerts Royaux and the Apothéoses. That said, there are also some pieces which have been largely overlooked. This part of the festival included a mixture of the familiar and the lesser-known.
The harpsichord works constitute the most sizeable part of Couperin's oeuvre. He published four books of pièces de clavecin between 1713 and 1730, comprising 27 suites or ordres. These were the subject of four recitals, each of them devoted to one of these harpsichord books. Aurélien Delage  opened the series with a programme of pieces from the first book. It consists of five ordres, each of which includes a number of dances and character pieces. The latter constitute a major innovation in the genre of pièces de clavecin, and in the course of time the number of character pieces constantly increases at the cost of dances. Delage had selected several pieces from each of the ordres; in the case of the 4e Ordre he confined himself to just one piece. Delage's interpretation was introverted and subtle; after the concert I listened to the CD recording by Michael Borgstede and I noticed some strong differences in the interpretation by the two artists. Borgstede has the faster tempi and emphasizes the contrasts in a rather theatrical way. As far as I am concerned, these two approaches are legitimate alternatives. That said, in some cases I found Delage's interpretation a bit too restrained and would prefer stronger contrasts, such as in Le réveil matin (4e Ordre). However, there was much to enjoy, such as the intensity of the sarabande La majestueuse (1e Ordre) and the nice flow in Les ondes from the 5e Ordre, which ended the programme.
The second book (1716/17) was the subject of a recital by Carole Cerasi , who had selected pieces from the 7e, 8e and 9e Ordres. From the former we heard a short cycle, devoted to the stages of human life, Les petits âges; Cerasi realised the contrasts between these pieces pretty well. From the 9e Ordre she had chosen three fairly quiet and elegant items, with additions such as nonchalamment, sans lenteur and tendrement respectively. Much more energetic was the allemande L'Ausoniéne from the 8e Ordre. This suite also includes the majestic sarabande L'Unique and the passacaille, one of Couperin's best-known harpsichord pieces, which received a nicely differentiated interpretation and was one of the highlights. It was followed by the playful La Morinéte, which concluded the recital. Two years ago Cerasi also played at the festival, and I was somewhat disappointed about her performance. I am more positive about her contribution this year, even though I felt that she too often was in a bit of a hurry. Some breathing spaces here and there would not have been amiss.
Bertrand Cuiller  devoted his recital to the third book (1722). Here we find mainly character pieces, sometimes portraits of people, but also character traits and situations. It is mostly impossible for modern interpreters to figure out exactly what Couperin had in mind. For instance, to what extent he really intended to portray someone or something is impossible to say. The titles seem mostly to refer to people or things that inspired him. That may well be the reason that he didn't feel the need to explain them. There can be no doubt, though, that La superbe, or La Forqueray was intended as a musical portrait of the famous viol virtuoso. Whether it was meant as a tribute or a gibe is open to debate. Les petits moulants à vent is probably not intended as a depiction of windmills, but of the foolish chatterboxes in the salons; that seems how Cuiller interpreted the piece anyway. Both pieces are from the 17e Ordre; from the 18e Ordre he had chosen Le turbulent and Le tic-toc-choc, ou Les maillotins, both played at high speed. The former was turbulent indeed, and reminded me of the stuff composers of a later generation produced (Duphly, Royer). In Les fauvétes plaintives (14e Ordre) we heard some chromaticism, and the recital closed with Le dodo, ou L'amour au berceau from the 15e Ordre, which is based on a nursery song. Cuiller seems a rather introverted performer, and that showed in his way of playing. Even so, he was quite convincing in the faster and more extroverted pieces as well. His performance was technically immaculate, and with his choice from the third book he gave a good impression of its character.
It was Christophe Rousset , who had been invited to present a selection from the fourth book of 1730. He has performed in previous editions of the festival, but as far as I can remember only with his ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, not as a soloist at the harpsichord. So this was a unique opportunity to hear him in this capacity, and that explains that the Lutheran Church was packed. The audience got what it undoubtedly hoped for: technically superior playing and an incisive interpretation of the pieces Rousset had selected from three of the eight Ordres in this book. It includes only a handful of dances; almost all the items are character pieces, many of which are connected to the theatre. It is often stated that Couperin was a man of discretion and a poet musician. That is certainly true, but although he - as far as we know - never composed any music for the theatre, he certainly was interested in it. Interestingly, Peter Holman has suggested that Couperin's Concert dans le goût théatral may originally have been an acte de ballet; it inspired Skip Sempé to create a divertissement, in which this piece is mixed with his songs and which was also performed at the festival (I could not attend that performance). That could explain the theatrical traits in the last harpsichord book. That does not mean, however, that we only find extroverted and dramatic pieces here. Rousset made that very clear in his recital, for instance with the subtle L'épineuse and the almost electrifying La convalescente (both from the 26e Ordre). La muse victorieuse, on the other hand, is a genuine dramatic piece, performed with much aplomb by Rousset. It was followed by the intimate Les ombres errantes, which concluded this superb recital. It was a worthy conclusion to a fascinating and illuminating journey through Couperin's four harpsichord books. I once read, that his harpsichord works are boring; this series attested to the opposite.
One of the parts of Couperin's oeuvre that is relatively little-known is his organ music, certainly outside France. One of the reasons is that French organ music is not easy to perform in a stylistically appropriate way on other instruments than French organs. Outside France such instruments are rare. Utrecht does not have such an instrument either, but, as I already indicated in my review of Benjamin Alard's Rameau recital, the disposition of the organ in the Tuindorpkerk is such, that it allows the interpreter to find a registration that approaches the original. Couperin composed two organ masses, which were both performed, by Jean-Luc Ho and James Johnstone respectively. I could only attend latter's performance of the Messe propre pour les convents de religieux, et religieuses . Couperin's organ masses are often played as published by the composer, without the liturgical chants. The interesting thing about the two performances in the festival was the inclusion of such chants, sung by the ensembles Les Meslanges, directed by Thomas Van Essen. The chants were taken from a collection of Messes en plain-chant musical by Paul d'Amance (c1650-c1700), which were printed in 1687. It offers a kind of newly-written plainchant, with contemporary ornamentation. For the Benedictus they turned to the Messe Exultate Deo by François Cosset (c1610-after 1664). Of particular interest was the use of a serpent, a wind instrument that was used in liturgical music in France from the 17th to the 19th century. I had heard it only on disc, and therefore it was quite interesting to hear it live and to see how it was played. The performances of Johnstone and the ensemble were excellent. The use of the organ of the Tuindorpkerk was one of the bright ideas of the festival.
Even less well-known than his organ music are Couperin's motets. However, three pieces from his sacred oeuvre are among his most famous and most frequently performed and recorded works: the Leçons de Ténèbres. They are part of a typical French tradition of performing settings of the lamentations of Jeremiah during Holy Week. Three settings from Couperin have come down to us, and they were performed in the Pieterskerk by the Ricercar Consort , consisting of Hanna Bayodi and Ana Quintans (soprano), Philippe Pierlot (viola da gamba) and François Guerrier (harpsichord, organ). Each of the Leçons was introduced by an instrumental piece. The first was preceded by a prélude for viola da gamba solo by Marin Marais, the second by a harpsichord piece by Couperin himself (L'âme en peine, from the 13e Ordre) and the third by another piece by Marais, Plainte, for viola da gamba and basso continuo. The acoustic of the Pieterskerk is such that one doesn't need to sing very loudly to be audible in the back rows. Unfortunately the two singers seemed not to know that, and therefore often were too loud. At such moments their singing was marred by quite some vibrato, which was especially regrettable as they have very nice voices and overall sang rather well. In the third Leçon their voices blended perfectly, which was especially effective at the end of the first verse, where Couperin uses harmony for expressive reasons. That didn't miss its effect here. The treatment of the text left nothing to be desired, and the declamatory passages came off perfectly. On the other hand, the legato in the vocalises on the Hebrew letters was delightful. Philippe Pierlot and François Guerrier delivered excellent support, and Pierlot played his solo pieces beautifully.
I already mentioned Les Nations as one of the best-known parts of Couperin's oeuvre. These four pieces are programmatic in that they include trio sonatas in the Italian and suites in the French style. They show Couperin as an advocate of the mixture of the two styles. The fact that the trio sonatas and the suites were composed in different stages of his career is hardly noticeable. Jordi Savall played all four pieces with his ensemble Hespèrion XXI/Le Concert des Nations . The instrumentation is left to the performers. Three of the four works were performed with two violins, transverse flute and oboe, with viola da gamba, bassoon, theorbo and harpsichord in the basso continuo. The strings and the winds played either colla parte or in alternation. The 3e Ordre: L'Impériale was entirely played with two violins. Where I was seated everything could be heard very clearly, but I wonder whether the people seated high up in the stands were just as lucky. After all, this is chamber music and comes better off in a more intimate acoustic. The chamber music hall (Hertz) would have been a bettet option, but in that case obviously far less people would have had the opportunity to attend the concert. That would have been a shame, because the musicians provided a colourful and engaging performance. The fact that Savall always works with the same people guarantees a strong consistency in the interpretation. He can fully rely on his colleagues, in this case Manfredo Kraemer and David Plantier (violin), Marc Hantaï (transverse flute), Patrick Beaugiraud (oboe), Josep Borràs (bassoon) and Rolf Lislevand (theorbo). Only harpsichordist Marco Vitale seemed relatively new to the ensemble. Some tempi were quite fast, but that did not cause any problems. This concert was a beautiful tribute to a great composer and enthusiastic defender of the goûts réünis.
Even less familiar than his motets are Couperin's secular songs. The fact that this part of his oeuvre is rather small may have contributed to it's being neglected. Therefore it was a splendid idea of Bertrand Cuiller to devote a concert with his ensemble Le Caravansérail to this repertoire . The small number of pieces from Couperin's pen required the programme to be extended with other pieces from his time. Cuiller had selected songs by Jean-Baptiste Drouart de Bousset, René de Bousset - two unknown quantities - and Sébastien Brossard, which belong among the genre of the air de court, which was particularly popular in the 17th century. At first such songs, as the name suggests, were sung mainly at the court, but after a while they found their way to the salons of the higher circles of society. Couperin composed his songs in a time, when the Italian solo cantata became increasingly popular in France and French composers also started to adopt that form. Couperin did not, and his songs are also free of Italian traits. The lyrics reflect the ideals of the time and bring us to Arcadia, the world of shepherds, shepherdesses and nymphs. Drinking songs (airs à boire) took a prominent place in the programme, but there were also some satirical songs. They were performed in a rather theatrical way by the haute-contre Jeffrey Thompson and the bass Stephan MacLeod. Whether that way of performing is justified seems questionable, given that this is chamber music. But that is hard to prove. Thompson showed to have much more talent for the theatre than MacLeod. There was also a difference in the style of singing as MacLeod used quite a bit of vibrato, unlike Thompson. In that respect they were not a particularly good match. Disappointing was also the modern French pronunciation. It is time that performers adopt a consistenly historical approach to that part of performance practice. Despite my critical comments, this was an entertaining concert which shed light on a little-known genre in general and an unfamiliar part of Couperin's oeuvre in particular. In between the vocal items Romina Lischka delivered a masterful and moving performance of the Suite in e minor for viola da gamba and basso continuo, one of the two suites for this scoring in Couperin's oeuvre.
In every festival there is an event which doesn't really fit into any of its themes. This year it was the concert of the Ensemble Correspondances, directed by Sébastien Daucé , which presented a live version of its CD production 'Le Concert Royal de la Nuit: the King is dancing'. It is Daucé's reconstruction - as far as possible on the basis of the available data - of a special event in 1653: a ballet with which Cardinal Mazarin wanted to present the young king Louis XIV and in particular to establish his position in relation to possible threats, for example on the part of the nobility. The ballet ended with the appearance of the sun god Apollo, danced by Louis himself. Hence his nickname: the Sun King. Only part of the music has been preserved and that is why Daucé chose music by composers who played a role in France at the time. This includes the Italians Luigi Rossi and Francesco Cavalli. The latter was represented with excerpts from his opera Ercole amante, which he composed during his stay in France, but which was probably never performed there, unlike Rossi's opera L'Orfeo, from which some fragments could also be heard. The Ensemble Correspondances is an outstanding ensemble that has been a guest in the festival several times and has always made a very good impression. That was not any different this time. The orchestra was excellent and played stylishly and with much commitment. The ensemble has excellent singers, who sing the choruses and also take care of the solos. Unfortunately, especially the ladies made use of too much vibrato; the gentlemen did better in this regard. But from a dramatic point of view none of the singers did disappoint. Lucile Richardot deserves special mention here.
It is time to sum up and draw some conclusions. According to festival director Xavier Vandamme, the 15th century, which took a central place because of the theme 'Burgundian life', was put on the map. Whether he is right, that it is a 'forgotten period', I do not know, but I have heard all kinds of music that I had not heard before. That is one of the charms of the festival: in general, the well-trodden paths are avoided and attempts are made to explore new ground. New approaches to interpretation are also being given the opportunity to be taken under scrutiny. This year Björn Schmelzer had the chance to present his views on the performance of renaissance polyphony. However, these are not exactly new; he has been a guest at the festival before, and his interpretations are available on several discs. I wonder, why he was given such a prominent place in the festival. I attended one concert, which only strengthened my scepticism. I now know for sure that I need to avoid his recordings.
I felt much more satisfied with the performances by the Huelgas Ensemble, which made a huge impression by giving three concerts within one afternoon. Many names which certainly were new to even hardcore fans of renaissance polyphony, were put on the map. In addition a few ensembles in the field of renaissance music deserve special mention, such as Tasto Solo, which has been a regular guest at the festival and should definitely return. The same goes for the relatively new Sollazzo Ensemble, one of the revelations of recent years. Its two concerts were among the top events in this year's festival. The cycle devoted to the masses of Josquin was quite interesting: it was a very good idea to programme some of them in performances by different ensembles. Música Temprana deserves special mention as it introduced us to the way Josquin's music was treated in Spain.
Those who prefer later music could enjoy concerts with music by Rameau and François Couperin. As far as the former is concerned, highlights were the performances of his motets and his opera Les Boréades. In the latter case, the vocal contributions were unfortunately disappointing. That brings me to a general observation regarding concerts with vocal music in the large hall of TivoliVredenburg. Both in Les Boréades and in the concert of the Ensemble Correspondances I noted that the singers tended to force themselves. Apparently they had the idea that they had to sing very loudly in order to be heard everywhere. However, I think that the acoustics of the hall are so good that a somewhat lower volume is sufficient. This phenomenon affected the quality of the vocal performances. At the same time, it must be said that it fits into a trend that I have noted many times in reviews of concerts and CD recordings. In particular in vocal music, several achievements of historical performance practice are being violated. If the festival wants to be a pioneer in the field of performance practice, it should make an effort to correct this.
Of course, the commemoration of the birth of Couperin could not be ignored. That resulted in a series of four captivating harpsichord recitals. However, I was particularly pleased with the performance of the two organ masses, which are rarely performed outside of France, due to the lack of suitable organs. The organ in the Tuindorpkerk turned out to be a surprisingly good and convincing instrument. The fact that the masses were put into a liturgical framework was a nice bonus.
We can look back on a very successful festival, with an interesting theme, which was worked out in a convincing and versatile way. Next year's festival will be devoted to music from Naples. We will certainly hear many things we have not heard before. That is something to look forward to. After all, Naples is more than Pergolesi.
Johan van Veen (© 2018)
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