musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

Festival Early Music Utrecht 2021

In 2021, the Festival Early Music Utrecht was back in business - sort of. There were still many things that were different from 'normal', for instance the need to show a 'corona check' before entering any event, and the fact that only two-thirds of the capacity of the concert venues could be used. Even so, lovers of early music could only be happy that the festival could take place at all. Those who were not able to attend, such as many from across the world, were offered the opportunity to listen to and watch some of the events online.

This year's theme was the influence of rhetorics in music, summed up by the title "Let's talk". Rhetorics is the doctrine of persuasive speech. This was worked out in different ways and a large variety of programmes and repertoire. Whereas rhetorics as one of the guiding principles of music is mostly associated with the baroque era in the first place, this concept is much older, and that was convincingly demonstrated in this festival.

During the festival, I have written reports of the individual concerts at my Facebook page. Those who have read them, may not find anything substantially new here. I have re-ordered my reports, connected them chronologically and according to genre, and obviously corrected the many typos.

Many years ago, one of the themes of the festival was 'storytelling'. It returned in several editions, and resulted in quite some memorable performances. Obviously, storytelling is closely connected to rhetorics. A storyteller has to present his story in such a way that his audience is hooked. Stories take an important role in music history. As we will see, they can take very different forms.

Some of the oldest stories were presented in a concert by Sequentia, consisting of Hanna Marti (voice and harp), Stef Conner (voice), Norbert Rodenkirchen (flutes, harp) and Benjamin Bagby (voice and harp). The title of their programme was "words of power", and we heard stories and charms from the Anglo-Saxon culture as well as from Germany and Iceland. Pagan and Christian elements are often mixed in the texts. The stories were performed in a theatrical manner, which may be well in accordance with the way stories were told in ancient cultures. Fortunately, the texts - in languages that have disappeared or changed drastically - were available in Dutch and English supertitles. The music that was performed is not something one would call 'nice'. There is too much distance between then and now, and much of the music is in a style with which few people - if any - will feel any connection. Interesting it certainly is, and for those who have a special interest in ancient popular cultures, this must have been a most fascinating event. It was all done very well; I can't imagine any ensemble being equally able to bring such music to life in a way that takes everything into account that is known about ancient performance practices.

Thematically, the concert by the Tiburtina Ensemble, directed by Barbora Kabátková, was not so far off that of Sequentia. Its programme was called "prophesies", a phenomenon which has been part of many cultures. The concert's starting point was the sibyl Tiburtina, the only figure of pagan antiquity recorded in the Christian liturgy. Apart from some antiphons we mostly heard uncommon texts, such as pieces whose title Lamentatio and the inclusion of Hebrew letters refer to the Lamentations of Jeremiah, but whose content is about the Last Judgment. Two such pieces were included in the second and third sections of the programme, about the Last Judgment and the Antichrist respectively. The first section was about the coming of the Messiah and the last about the victory of the Lamb. The programme included three pieces of a form known as leich: the texts are of apocalyptic nature and are poetically of high quality. There was one piece on a Czech text, by the reformer Jan Hus. Whereas nearly all the pieces were monophonic, there were also two polyphonic pieces from the pen of Petrus Wilhelmi de Grudencz. The whole programme was most fascinating and was superbly performed by the Tiburtina Ensemble. One probably won't ever hear any better singing by an ensemble of female voices. I can't wait to hear them again.

Concerts by the ensemble La Fonte Musica, directed by Michele Pasotti, usually count among the highlights in the festival. The programmes are always original and interesting and the performances excellent. That was not any different in this year's festival, where it performed at the Pieterskerk, which was the best venue for the music it had selected, especially the sacred part of the programme. Its central figure was Antonio Zacara da Teramo (1350/60-1413 or later). The title of the concert tells us something about him: "Medieval and eloquent - Humanism in the Trecento". The pieces in this programme were selected for the relation between text and music. That was not common at the time, and one certainly should not expect anything like wordpainting or madrigalisms. However, it is remarkable that there are aspects of text illustration in Zacara's sacred music, for instance descending figures in all the voices on the words "descendit de caelis" in one of his Credo settings. With seven settings each of the Gloria and the Credo, Zacara has written more polyphonic settings of the Mass ordinary than any other composer of the ars nova. The programme opened with some secular pieces which specifically deal with rhetorics. La Fonte Musica had five excellent singers in its ranks, which delivered outstanding performances. The space of the church was effectively used, for instance for the playing of the two sackbuts. It was a pretty exciting event, a nice combination of music, performance and acoustic.

Tasto Solo is one of the most interesting ensembles in the field of medieval and early renaissance music. That is particularly due to the important role of uncommon keyboard instruments in its performances, such as the clavecytherium and the organetto, played by the ensemble's director, Guillermo Pérez. He and his ensemble are regular guests at the festival, and they often perform uncommon repertoire. That was not any different this time. The concert was devoted to motets by Philippe de Vitry, who is mainly known as a theorist, but whose motets earned the admiration of his contemporaries. The performances by Tasto Solo made that easy to understand. Most motets are settings of three different texts. Obviously that makes it hard, if not impossible, to understand them, but that was not the main concern of Vitry and his time. Such music was not intended for a general audience, but had a liturgical function in the first place and could also be enjoyed by professional singers and those members of the higher echelons of society who had a thorough knowledge of music and compositional techniques. The motets turned out to be excellent pieces and even able to excite the senses. That was also due to the performances by the ensemble, and especially its four outstanding singers: Anne-Kathryn Olsen, Marine Fribourg, Riccardo Pisani and David Hernandez. Rémi Lécorché's sackbut also played a substantial role in the performances. The acoustic of the Willibrordkerk was tailor-made for this programme, which received an enthusiastic reception from the audience. What would a festival be without Tasto Solo?

The theme of this year's festival may have been the influence of rhetorics in music, but it is not useful to approach every single concert from that angle. It is hard to see, for instance, what the Messe de Nostre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut has to do with rhetorics. This work was performed by the Ensemble Organum, directed by Marcel Pérès. It took place in the Cathedral, whose large space and reverberation suited both the music and the way Pérès and his colleagues performed it. The singing was quite expansive, generally rather loud and slowish. The Kyrie only lasted more than ten minutes. One of the features of this ensemble's performances is the addition of ornamentation, which seems to be inspired by the music of the Near East. Pérès's views on this matter are controversial and certainly not everybody's taste. The result was a monumental sound, which was not very transparent. Ornamentation was also added in the plainchant, which was included in order to put the mass into its "ritual context", as Pérès put it. His approach to early liturgical repertoire is not generally embraced, but it was definitely interesting to hear it being put into practice. After all, a festival like this one is the appropriate opportunity to bring uncommon interpretations to the attention of a wider audience. The singing was excellent and the performance certainly made a strong impression.

There can be no doubt whatsoever about the connection between the concert of the Ensemble Leones, directed by Marc Lewon, and the festival's theme, as it was devoted to Oswald von Wolkenstein, one of the most famous storytellers of the Middle Ages. He was a poet and singer from southern Tirol, who has left a large number of songs, many of which tell stories about his adventures during his many travels. Vocal items were alternated with instrumental pieces and vocal pieces performed instrumentally. Unfortunately, the programme omitted any lyrics (the result of some miscommunication within the organisation), which made it virtually impossible to follow the various stories and experience the way Oswald shapes them in his music. The singers did their best to act as medieval singers by turning to the audience and adressing them. The fact that they sang from a score was a little compromising these attempts. Even so, they managed to bring out the eloquence of Oswald's songs. With Grace Newcombe and Raitis Grigalis, Lewon - himself also a fine singer - could rely on two nice voices. They turned out to be excellent storytellers. There was some engaging playing from Baptiste Romain, Mara Winter and Marc Lewon as well as Grace Newcombe, who also played the harp. Despite the lack of lyrics, it was definitely an entertaining concert.

Stories of various kinds were the core of a programme of secular and sacred works from the Renaissance by I Fideli, an ensemble of loud wind instruments and organ, and the tenor Ivo Haun de Oliveiro. It started with secular pieces about (unhappy) love by Willaert, Arcadelt, Fulda and Mahu; Willaert’s Dulces exuviae closed this section. Next were sacred pieces, about David lamenting the death of Saul and Jonathan (Josquin), Jesus's intervention in the life of Saul (the later apostle St Paul) (Jean le Brung) and Jesus lamenting the death of Lazarus and then raising him from the dead (Clemens non Papa). There could be no doubt about the qualities of the performers, but this interesting programme never came off the ground. First, it is certainly a legitimate option to perform polyphony with one voice and instruments, but to perform every piece this way is rather one-sided. Second, explaining in the liner-notes the connection between text and music of a piece and then perform it instrumentally is rather odd. Third, cornetts, sackbuts and shawms are more suitable for the performance of sacred music than of secular works; in the latter a consort of viols seems more plausible. Fourth, in polyphony all voices are treated on equal footing, and in this line-up the singer certainly should not act as a soloist. Here it was the other way round: poor Ivo Haun de Oliveira was simply blown away by the winds. It was entirely impossible to hear any word he was singing. Sometimes one only could see that he was singing, without being able to hear him. The acoustic of the Pieterskerk made things worse. It is just a big shame that these fine artists were not able to do justice to the music they had selected, due to a lack of balance between singer and ensemble and a poor judgement of line-up and acoustic.

This year is Josquin year: this grand master of Renaissance polyphony passed away in 1521. Of course, this could not be ignored at this festival. However, as the edition of 2018 had already paid much attention to his oeuvre, he did not take a prominent place in this year's programme. Rebecca Stewart, one of the pioneers of the performance of classical polyphony, had the honour of dedicating a concert to him. The programme was devoted to music that Josquin composed as a tribute to three deceased colleagues: Ockeghem, Obrecht and Brumel. The last work was a tribute to Josquin himself, written by an anonymous composer, but possibly from the pen of Adrian Willaert. Rebecca Stewart is now an elderly and fragile lady: she had to be supported as she climbed and descended the stairs of the choir of the Pieterskerk. But there was nothing fragile in the way she guided the ensembles Cantus Modalis and Seconda Prat!ca through the programme. We know the manner of singing from recordings and concerts with various ensembles from the past, such as the Cappella Pratensis. The singers stand around a choirbook, which greatly helps to create harmony between the singers, who produce a close-knit ensemble. The tempi were moderate and there was no loud singing. Nevertheless, the ensemble reached all corners of the church. Also typical are the crescendi that you hardly expect in this music. I found the bourdon with which the Gregorian chants began rather peculiar. The most famous work was of course Josquin's Nymphe des bois in honour of Ockeghem. The other pieces are less well known and that made this concert particularly interesting. The work attributed to Willaert was probably a premiere and turned out to be a substantial work, a fine extension of the repertoire of musical tributes. This concert was a fitting musical monument for Josquin Desprez.

A story of a special kind was the background of a performance by the ensemble Doulce Mémoire, directed by Denis Raisin Dadre at the Cathedral. In 1610, the French king Henri IV was murdered, and at his funeral it was likely the Missa pro defunctis by Eustache du Caurroy that was sung. For this performance it was put into its context by texts from the time, recited by the actor Philippe Vallepin. They were quite long, but that was no problem at all, because they substantially helped to understand the importance of the event. Vallepin did not use a microphone - he didn't need to: he recited the texts in such a way that they were clearly intelligible across the large space. Surprisingly - and not explained in the programme - two rhymed psalms by Claude Goudimel, based on tunes from the protestant Genevan Psalter, were included. Several phases of the event were introduced with instrumental pieces by Caurroy. These sounded appropriately celebratory, thanks to the use of loud winds (cornett, shawm, sackbut), which were played brilliantly and benefitted from the reverberation of the church. Caurroy's Requiem was then given an outstanding performance, partly sung a cappella and partly with instruments playing colla voce. The event ended with Vallepin declaring "The King is dead! Long live the King!" (Louis XIII), followed by a fanfare by the winds and the percussion at the far end of the church. It was a spectacular event, and a moving one, also thanks to the insertion of texts from the time, which drew the listener back to 1610. The singing and playing was of the highest order, and this concert was certainly one of the highlights of this year's festival.

The influence of rhetorics in music is often associated with the baroque era, but as some concerts at this festival showed, its concept is much older. That said, in the baroque repertoire that was performed, the connection was often more obvious and more clearly demonstrated. The new style, which became the standard after 1600, was heralded by a work that many music lovers may know but seldom may have heard live: the Intermedi to the play La Pellegrina, performed in 1589 at the wedding of Ferdinando de' Medici and Christine of Lorraine. This opulent sequence of instrumental pieces, solos and choruses for up to 30 voices is a unique specimen of the gradual shift from the stile antico to the new style. One of the latter's promoters, Giulio Caccini, was also involved in the composition of the Intermedi. Others were Malvezzi, Archilei, Marenzio, Festa, de' Bardi, Peri and de' Cavalieri. The latter composed the closing chorus: 'O che nuovo miracolo', which is the most recognizable of all the pieces in these Intermedi. I vividly remember the impression this chorus - and the entire work - made when I first heard it in a recording under the direction of Hans-Martin Linde in that admirable Reflexe series of EMI. Much has changed, and today the singing and playing is much better, as the performance under the direction of Skip Sempé proved. For the choruses he could rely on the members of Voces Suaves, specialists in early music, and the Cappella Amsterdam, a choir with a repertoire from Renaissance to the present, and very much at home in early music. Most of the solos were sung by the wonderful soprano Zsuzsi Tóth, one of the pillars of Vox Luminis. How well she dealt with the virtuosic ornamentation in her solos. The tenor Valerio Contaldo had only a few solos to sing, but did so well. The Capriccio Stravagante Renaissance Orchestra delivered colourful performances of the instrumental parts. The Intermedi may be quite well-known, but they are not often performed because of the many singers and players needed. A festival is the perfect place to bring such a large ensemble together; many of the singers and players appear in other ensembles during this festival as well. One can leave it to Sempé to weld so many forces together; it resulted in a memorable event.

Emilio de' Cavalieri has not only become famous for his contributions to the Intermedi, but even more for the Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo, which was performed by Vox Luminis under the direction of Lionel Meunier. It is a kind of morality play, in which the soul (Anima) has to decide which path to follow: that of worldly pleasures, ending in Hell, or the path of virtue which leads to Heaven. The first act is devoted to a dialogue between Soul (Stefanie True) and Body (Anima; Raffaele Giordani), which represent two sides of the same character. In the second act several allegorical figures enter the deliberations: Piacere (Pleasure) and two companions (Jan Kullmann, Roberto Rilievi and Richard Myrus), Cielo (Heaven, in form of an echo), Mondo (World; Massimo Lombardi), Vita Mondana (Worldly Life; Maria Chiara Gallo), Angelo Custode (the Guardian Angel; Perrine Devillers), Intelletto (Intellect; João Moreiro) and Consiglio (Counsel; Lombardi). In the third act life in Hell is described in drastic pictures through the testimonies of the Damned Souls (one of them Hugo Oliveira). Their fate is juxtaposed to that of the Blessed Souls in Heaven (represented by Zsuzsi Tóth). As Soul decides to follow the path to Heaven the choir sings a song of praise: "Let every tongue, every heart sing praises to my Lord". The work ends with a festa, a celebration in which all people are urged to rejoice with voices and instruments: "With songs and smiles give answer to Paradise!" If Vox Luminis's performance is going to make it into a CD recording, it may blow away any other recording available. It was just a marvellous performance. All artists involved, singers and instrumentalists alike, were in top form. What is most important is that this work's content was eloquently communicated to the audience. This performance also made it very clear that this is a masterpiece and that Cavalieri was a brilliant composer. The closing festa has the same earworm qualities as his closing chorus of La Pellegrina. There was not much acting, although the actions of Pleasure and his companions, with Myrus eating a banana in order to demonstrate worldly pleasures, caused some laughter. There was no need for much action: the singing was as communicative as one could wish for. This was an event one is going to remember for a long time.

Whereas in Cavalieri's work one can hear the manifestation of the new style, not every composer immiediately embraced it. Orazio Vecchi was one who remained true to the stile antico. He is pretty well-known by name, but few people may have heard more from his pen than his madrigal comedy L'Amfiparnaso. This is part of a genre he has become especially famous for. A lesser-known specimen of this genre is Le Veglie di Siena, which dates from 1604. Part of it is L'humore musicale: as the court cannot decide in which style to perform the evening's entertainment, a singing game takes place. The musicians perform poetry in the way they prefer. Each madrigal should represent a particular humour. Fourteen humours are presented, among them a sorrowful, a melancholic and a nutty humour. These pieces also include some satirical elements, for instance in that Vecchi makes fun of the frequency with which Guarini's Cor mio was set. For one 'humour' he uses the text of Petrarca's Hor che'l ciel. The fact that Vecchi was a master of the madrigal comedy siggests that he was able to characterise situations accurately. These madrigals bear witness to that. It is remarkable how he is able to differentiate between the various humours, in such a way that they are still very recognizable. These features came off perfectly in the performance by the ensemble Invocare in the Pieterskerk. Although that is not the most suitable venue for this repertoire, the acoustic fortunately did not really harm the quality of the performances. Invocare is a young ensemble which had never before crossed my path, but is defimitely one to keep an eye on. I very much enjoyed the concert, because of the nature of Vecchi's music and because of the excellent singing of this ensemble. I hope to see and hear them again.

A composer who enthusiastically embraced the new style, was Claudio Monteverdi. He could not be omitted in this year's festival. The ensemble RossoPorpora, directed by Walter Testolin, performed pieces from the seventh and eighth madrigal books in the Pieterskerk. The concept of the performance was the idea that the characters address each other directly, without the texts actually being performed in dialogue form. The singers moved around at the stage, Testolin directing while sitting at a table, and sometimes getting involved in the proceedings as a singer himself. Overall, the singing was as good as one would wish: Massimo Altieri, Giacomo Schiavo, Guglielmo Buonsanti and Testolin impressively showed their command of the style of Monteverdi and his time. That said, there were a few issues. First, I experienced the moving around at the stage as distracting; at least for me it attracted too much attention, at the cost of the music. It was meant to emphasize the groundbreaking nature of Monteverdi's music, but for me it did notwork that way. Second, the singing was pretty loud most of the time, and due to the acoustic of the church it was often too loud. These madrigals are theatrical by nature, but were not meant for the theatre. This is still chamber music. The performers seemed to have overlooked that, and the Pieterskerk was certainly not the most suitable venue for this repertoire and this way of performing.

Whereas a large part of Europe also embraced the new style, one of the main exceptions was England. At the time when in Italy composers wrote basso continuo parts, English composers continued to write songs for voice and lute. This was the repertoire performed by the Duo Serenissima. It is pretty popular among singers, but mostly the same pieces are performed, in particular those by Dowland. However, there is more, and one of the nice things about this ensemble, consisting of the soprano Elisabeth Hetherington and the lutenist David Mackor, is their exploration of the songs by lesser-known composers of the English renaissance. That was the case here as well: when do we hear songs by the likes of Charles Coleman and Nicholas Lanier? Even the songs by William and Henry Lawes are little known. Another asset of this duo is that the songs are performed in historical pronunciation, which is still a very rare phenomenon. The programme was also interesting for another reason. As I already indicated above, English composers stayed away from the latest developments in Italy, such as the declamatory style in vocal music and the writing of basso continuo parts. At least, that is the generelly-held view, which is not entirely incorrect, but one-sided. Several songs in the programme proved that some composers were well aware of what was going on in Italy and were willing and able to follow that example. All these features were reasons to appreciate this concert and the efforts of the performers. That said, in the end I was rather disappointed about the performances. I have heard Elisabeth Hetherington before and I liked her singing, but since then an incessant, small but clearly noticeable vibrato has crept in, which spoiled my enjoyment. If one is lucky to find a singer who has all the qualities to be a stylish interpreter of early music, one is hoping that he or she is able to develop in the right direction. Too often they join the mainstream, meaning that they start to sing in a way which is compromising what historical performance practice is about. I sincerely hope that what I heard in this recital is not more than an incident or just a stage in Ms Hetherington's artistic development. I don't want to see her go the way of so many of her colleagues.

In the second half of the 17th century, and especially after the Restoration, England embraced the style we call 'baroque'. Quickly it developed into a centre of music; at the end of the 17th century and in the first half of the 18th, England, and in particular London, was the place to be. Composers from across Europe settled there to find employment, and some played a considerable role at the music scene. One of them was the German-born Johann Christoph Pepusch, whose name is connected with the Beggar's Opera. Ironically, it was he who was responsible for a successful attempt to create an English opera: Venus and Adonis, premiered in 1715. It was, according to the librettist Colley Cibber, "an attempt to give the Town a little good Musick in a Language they understand". It is not any different from the opera seria of that time, but on a more modest scale. It lasts about 75 minutes, and the (dacapo) arias are shorter than in, for instance, Handel's operas. Three characters figure in it, scored for soprano, alto and bass. The arias are well written; some have an obbligato part, for instance for the recorder and the transverse flute. The opera ends with a rage scene, sung by Venus, which more famous composers shouldn't have been ashamed of. The recitatives have a nice dramatic flow; Pepusch often turns to the form of the arioso. The Harmonious Society of Tickle-Fiddle Gentlemen, directed by Robert Rawson, recorded this work for Ramée, and performed it at the festival in Hertz. That was the right venue for this piece. The performers did hardly make use of gestures, but this and the lack of action were not a real problem; the music is good enough as it is and the three soloists were successful in communicating the dramatic features of this opera. There was also good interaction. Philippa Hyde, Ciara Hendricks and Vitali Rozynko did well in portraying the three characters of Adonis, Venus and Mars respectively. Stylistically I was less happy with most of the singing, as it was often marred by too much vibrato - the usual problem these days. That said, it was a nice acquaintance with the rare phenomenon of an English opera from the baroque era and with Pepusch, who deserves much more attention.

Sébastien Daucé, director of the Ensemble Correspondances, was of the artists in residence at this year's festival, and because of that he and his ensemble played a keyrole in the event. It was responsible for the opening concert (more about that later) and also two other events, which were linked in that both were devoted to the genre of the oratorio. In the first Giacomo Carissimi was the central figure. He has become especially known for his oratorios, and one of the best-known was the last work on the programme: Jephte, telling the dramatic story of one of the judges of Israel, who defeats the Ammonites and then finds out that his daughter is the victim of his promise to sacrifice to God the first that he will meet after returning home. It ends with one of the most expressive choruses of the baroque era, which made already a strong impression in his own time. One can leave it to Daucé and his colleagues to explore the expressive features to the full. Caroline Weynants delivered an impressive performance of the part of Jephta's daughter. The oratorio was preceded by music from the pen of composers who were influenced by Carissimi, such as the Germans Kaspar Förster and Christoph Bernhard. Particularly interesting was the inclusion of a piece by a composer I had never heard of: Philipp Jakob Baudrexel (1627-1691); he cleverly juxtaposed solo and tutti sections. Marc-Antoine Charpentier was also impressed by Carissimi, and composed a number of oratorios himself - a rarity in France. We heard Pestis Mediolanensis, about the plague which hit Milan in 1576/77. It is a celebration of the heroic role of Carlo Borromeo, the bishop of Milan, who "consoled and encouraged the sick who languished, and washed and kissed their dripping open sores". Once again, the Ensemble Correspondances proved to be more than specialists in French music. Apparently it can hardly put a foot wrong.

Charpentier's oratorios were the subject of the second event. Three of them, devoted to female characters, were given staged performances at the Stadsschouwburg. When I ordered my tickets, I did not realize that I had already seen these performances on DVD (review). So I could not expect anything new. That said, seeing them live is interesting and I was curious whether they would make me less sceptical about the whole idea of staging Charpentier's oratorios. The answer: no. I still can't see any reason to stage them. They may not have been performed as part of church services and they are certainly theatrical in character, but that in itself is not enough to justify a staged performance. Having seen the DVD and the performances at the festival, I don't feel staging adds anything substantial to what they want to communicate. But that may be just me; I know that I have little feeling for theatre. Let me also say that the staging, although by no means based on historical examples, was a model of good taste, certainly in comparison with dreadful things I have seen over the years. In the DVD production I was rather disappointed about the singing, in comparison with that on the CD. That was not different here. There was much more vibrato in most of the voices than we usually hear from this ensemble, and I also had the impression that some singers forced themselves. I am not sure what the causes are. Do the singers sing differently in order to overcome the acoustical disadvantages of a theatre, being afraid that they are not heard at the back of the hall? Is it the acoustic itself which compromises the sound they produce? I don't know. Anyway, I certainly enjoyed the show, but if I had not gone, I had not missed much.

Charpentier was virtually the only French composer who wrote oratorios. This genre, which was so popular in Italy, never rooted in France. Therefore it came as a surprise to see an oratorio in the programme of music by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault, performed by the Choeur de Chambre de Namur and the ensemble a nocte temporis, directed by Reinoud Van Mechelen, who also sang as haute-contre, alongside three other soloists. Clérambault is certainly not an unknown quantity, but most people probably only know his organ music and some of his secular chamber cantatas. Van Mechelen shed light on other aspects of his oeuvre. In addition to the oratorio L'histoire de la femme adultère, he performed La muse de l'opéra ou les caractère lyriques, a secular cantata with orchestra, and the Te Deum. The oratorio is based on the story from St John, in which Jesus discusses with the Farizees and scribes the fate of a woman caught in adultery. It is not really dramatic, but it was quite interesting to hear Clérambault's (only) contribution to a genre virtually non-existent in France. The solo part in the cantata was sung by Van Mechelen himself, who has rightly gained a reputation as one of the finest tenors/haute-contres of our time, as he showed here. Lastly we heard Clérambault's setting of the Te Deum, one of the most popular texts among French composers. Such pieces were often performed at specific occasions, such as a military victory and other affairs of monarchy and state. There were some nice contributions from Deborah Cachet, Guy Cutting and Lisandro Abadie. However, Cachet should have reduced her vibrato. The contributions of the choir were first-class as one may expect from an ensemble that has been involved in so many recordings of early music. For many listeners this concert may have been an ear opener.

A concert by Le Poème Harmonique, directed by Vincent Dumestre, brought us back to 17th-century France. It was devoted to airs de cour by Etienne Moulinié and Charles Tessier. However, in fact not so much the airs de cour in their basic form were performed, intended for solo voice and an accompaniment of a chordal instrument, but more extended forms of it, including songs in Spanish and pieces of a theatrical character, which the performers clearly liked to explore. One could say that Dumestre had opted for the more 'popular' side of the repertoire. A number of instruments were involved, such as several viols, recorder and bassoon as well as percussion. This is fully legitimate, and the way it was performed was a model of good taste in comparison with the aberrations of Christina Pluhar (which I heard on the radio, as I never go to any of her concerts), but it is just not my taste. The singing and playing was excellent, and it was especially nice to have the chance of hearing Claire Lefilliâtre once again. Even so, as it was my last concert at the festival, I had liked a different way of ending it.

In a festival devoted to rhetorics and music, German music of the 17th century can't be overlooked, and certainly not the Israelis Brünlein by Johann Hermann Schein. This collection of sacred pieces on German texts, mostly from the Old Testament, is modelled after the Italian madrigal. Here Schein proves to be master of text expression through wordpainting and madrigalisms. These pieces are quite popular among vocal ensembles and choirs, and rightly so. They are available in several recordings, and Stephan MacLeod, with his ensemble Gli Angeli Genève, performed them in the Geertekerk in Utrecht in 2011. He returned to these pieces in the festival with a selection, performed at the Cathedral. The line-up of the ensemble was partly different: Aleksandra Lewandowska, Robert Getchell and obvioualy Stephan MacLeod himself were involved in both performances. I prefer the 'old' line-up, which included the admirable Hana Blaziková. Here the upper part was sung by Jenny Hogström, who has a nice voice and sang well, but was sometimes too loud at the top notes. In the middle parts, Getchell was joined by Thomas Hobbs. Overall the ensemble was good, but not as good as in the earlier performance. These pieces are almost certainly not meant as church music, but rather for domestic performance. From that perspective, a smaller venue would have been preferable. The Cathedral has just too much reverberation. That said, I certainly enjoyed the performance, and the quality and character of these pieces as well as Schein's brilliant treatment of the texts did not fail to make a lasting impression.

In his time, Schein's colleague Heinrich Schütz was given the nickname Musicus poeticus, because of his great skills in translating a text into music in such a way that it had as much impact as possible and communicated its meaning and its Affekt to the audience. One of the most brilliant and impressive specimens of his art are his Musicalische Exequien, a kind of Lutheran Requiem mass. No wonder it is one of those works which the ensemble Vox Luminis performs regularly. In the performance at the festival it was preceded by several other pieces from Schütz's pen that are connected to funerals. This is music almost tailor-made for this ensemble, as it includes tutti episodes which ask for perfect ensemble - something Vox Luminis almost never fails to realise - but also many sections for one or several solo voices. The members of Vox Luminis have what it takes to bring German music of the 17th century to life. Diction, articulation, pronunciation and dynamic shading are exactly as they should be. The fact that two singers had to be replaced by external forces, did not compromise the overall sound of the ensemble. This was a memorable performance, which was a little damaged by the venue. Hertz is an excellent hall for chamber music and intimate secular vocal repertoire, but not for music intended for performance in a church. In Part 3 Schütz has added that the Canticum Simeonis should be sung by a five-part choir of lower voices near the organ, whereas two sopranos and a bass should sing the text "Selig sind die Toten" from the back of the vault in which Posthumus von Reuß, for whose funeral the music was written, was laid to rest. The performers found a solution for this: the vault was here somewhere behind the scene, but due to the dry acoustics it did not work that well. Vox Luminis should have refused to perform this work in this unsuitable venue.

In a concert at the second Saturday, given by Gli Angeli Genève, Schein and Schütz joined, in the company of other German composers of the 17th century. The concept of the programme, called "The way of the word: from Schütz to Schütz", was quite interesting. Stephan MacLeod had chosen four texts - three from the Old Testament and one chorale - and wanted to show how different composers treated them. In addition to pieces by Schein and Schütz, we heard music by Samuel Scheidt, Matthias Weckmann and Dieterich Buxtehude. The pieces by Schein were taken from Israelis Brünlein, which had already been part of the concert just mentioned. Schütz's pieces were from his GeistlicheChor-Music and the Psalmen Davids. The latter pieces are for double choir, to which a cappella can be added. That was the case in two of them, and because of that a large ensemble was needed. In addition to nine singers, an instrumental ensemble participated which included the likes of Eva Saladin, Anais Chen, Doron Sherwin and Kaori Uemura. In the last piece, Zion spricht: Der Herr hat mich verlassen by Schütz, even the organ of the hall participated, played by Francis Jacob. He also played two Magnificats, by Buxtehude and Weckmann respectively, which were nicely performed as alternatim pieces: the variations alternated with sung plainchant. Overall this was quite a nice and often even moving event. The singing and playing was very good and the space was effectively used, especially in the pieces for double choir. The second section was devoted to the choraleMit Fried und Freud, first in a setting by Johann Walter, then in Buxtehude's version, which ends with the Klag-Lied. The latter was, as is common these days, not performed complete, and the solo part was sung by three sopranos, which is questionable. The acoustic of the hall is not really suited for this kind of repertoire, as it has too little reverberation. Even so, this was a nice experience, and the music by these German composers did not fail to make a lasting impression.

With Buxtehude we are at the opening concert. One of the rules of rhetorics is that the orator has to get the attention of his audience right at the start. That also goes for the opening concert of the festival. It should be a top-class event which makes the audience longing for more. It was the task of Sébastien Daucé and his Ensemble Correspondances to convince the audience, and it succeeded with flying colours. He had chosen Buxtehude's masterpiece Membra Jesu nostri, which the ensemble has performed in the on-line festival of last year and has released on disc later. Xavier Van Damme, the director of the festival, said in his introduction that the main task of the orator was to touch the emotions of his audience. "I would almost say: If you don't feel anything tonight, you can get your money back". He didn't need to worry, thanks to Buxtehude and to Daucé and his colleagues. Knowing by experience how hard it is for performers not having grown up in the German tradition to perform German baroque music convincingly, I can only take a deep bow for the performers who delivered an expressive and incisive performance. In the middle we heard the Klaglied, which received an impressive performance by Lucile Richardot. I'm not sure whether her many ornaments were really appropriate in this piece, though. Anyway, this concert did just what an orator needs to do: get the attention of his audience.

The Book of Psalms has been one of the major sources of inspiration for composers from early times to the present, One of the most frequently set is Psalm 129/130, De profundis clamavi. It is also one of the seven penitential psalms, sung during Lent. This psalm was the theme of a concert by the ensemble L'Armonia Sonora, directed by Mieneke van der Velden in the Geertekerk. The programme opened with Johann Walter's four-part setting of Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, with the cantus firmus in the tenor. It was followed by Schütz's setting, Aus der Tiefe, for two choirs from the Psalmen Davids. As only four singers participated, the line-up of the first choir was soprano (Kristen Witmer) and strings, whereas the other choir was performed by three singers (Margot Oitzinger, Raphael Höhn, Peter Kooij) and one instrument. Next was Johann Rosenmüller's setting of the Latin text. It is a sequence of episodes for solo voice(s) and four-part tutti. It is a mixture of Italian and German elements, the latter represented by the five-part scoring. The last work was one of Bach's most famous cantatas, Aus der Tiefe (BWV 131). It is one of his early cantatas, written in 1707/08, which bears some traces of the 17th-century sacred concerto. Here Raphael Höhn and Peter Kooij sang the arias, and they did so very well. We know Kooij as a Bach veteran, whereas Höhn is probably not that well-known, but one understands why he was the Evangelist in performances of Bach's St John Passion by Vox Luminis some years ago. He is an excellent singer with a voice I really like. I certainly hope to hear him more often in solo parts. The cantata includes an obbligato part for oboe, which was played by Marcel Ponseele, one of the best players of the baroque oboe today. The organ in the basso continuo was played by Benjamin Alard. All these factors resulted in a superb performance of Bach's cantata. The entire programme was excellently performed.

Obviously, rhetorics, and especially story telling, is of great importance in vocal music. However, it is no less important in instrumental music, and even with only instruments one can tell a story. That was demonstrated in the first of the series of harpsichord recitals that I attended. If there is any keyboard music written according to rhetorical principles, it is the set of six biblical sonatas by Johann Kuhnau. In each sonata he depicts a story from the Old Testament with musical means. They are sometimes played at a large organ, but they are undoubtedly intended for domestic performance, preferably at a strung keyboard instrument. It is the challenge to the performer to realise the effects with the relatively limited means of such an instrument. All six sonatas were performed during this festival. I could only hear the first three of them, which were played by Michael Hell. It was decided to recite the introduction by Kuhnau himself (in German), which is a nice idea. However, there are also explanations in each sonata's score itself, and these were also recited. That was not such a great idea, as they disturbed the dramatic flow of the stories as depicted by Kuhnau. Thomas Höft tried to present the introductions as lively as possible, but he could have been more moderate in this respect (as well as in what he was wearing - a clown costume distracts the attention of the audience, and is hardly appropriate for this repertoire). Fortunately, Hell delivered exemplary performances, in which he successfully attempted to tell the story with notes, with the means of articulation, tempo and as much dynamic contrasts as the harpsichord allows. He made clear that we have to do here with masterpieces, and that Kuhnau was highly skilled in using rhetorical means to his end: communicating biblical stories to an audience – or, in this case, also the performer himself.

The second recital in the harpsichord series that I was able to attend, was given by the German harpsichordist Christine Schornsheim. She is an established force at the German and European keyboard scene, but - as far as I can remember - she has never played at the festival, which is quite surprising. I know her from many recordings, but had never heard her live, so I was curious to hear this recital. The programme was interesting, as it included two of Bach's arrangements of instrumental suites by Johann Adam Reincken. The latter was represented with a toccata, and Georg Böhm, another composer who strongly influenced Bach, with his brilliant Prelude, fugue and postlude in g minor. This recital also included a story: Bach's Capriccio sopra la lontananza del fratello dilettissimo. Who the fratello is, remains a matter of speculation, but the titles of the various sections are eloquent enough. Bach shows his skills in telling a story with music, and Christine Schornsheim made the most of it. The tempi were mostly well chosen, except that of the penultimate section: Schornsheim played it allegro, but overlooked the poco. Böhm's piece, often played at the organ, came off very well, as did the two arrangements by Bach. Schornsheim managed to create good contrasts between the various movements, and also achieved a maximum of transparency, for instance in the fugues. I knew Schornsheim as an excellent player from her recordings; she showed her credentials convincingly in this fine recital.

The third recital was given by Francesco Cera, whose programme was devoted to Frescobaldi, one of his specialities. Halfway the recital a truck parked in front of the church, which let the engine idle, causing quite some noise. It obviously disturbed Cera, but it did in no way compromise his playing. He had selected pieces from the first and second books of toccatas (1615 and 1627), and had structured the programme in a way which made much sense from a rhetorical point of view. The core of the programme were toccatas, which were ordered - as in the two collections - from modest to highly complicated, and according to an increase in depth of affetti. In order not to overstretch the attention of the audience, Cera played some lighter stuff in alternation with the toccatas, in the form of correntes and partitas, as well as the Capriccio sopra La Battaglia. Especially the latter brought some relaxation, and at the end Cera could not suppress a smile. He was rather serious during most of the recital, as Frescobaldi's music requires utmost concentration. That paid off: Cera delivered highly compelling performances, with brilliant timing, exploring the contrasts within the toccatas and this way communicating the affetti Frescobaldi wanted to express. He played the correntes with rhythmic precision. The noise from outside the church was disappointing, but did not spoil my enjoyment of this recital.

In the next recital, Bob van Asperen devoted his entire programme to Frescobaldi's pupil Johann Jacob Froberger. Most of the genres to which he contributed were represented: three suites, a fantasia, a toccata, a capriccio and a ricercar. And then there were the tombeaus, one on the death of the lutenist Blancrocher. Two other tombeaus were called lamentation or lamento, on the death of Ferdinand III and Ferdinand IV respectively. The latter is the first movement of a suite. Closely connected to these lamentos is the first movement of the Suite XX, which is a meditation on Froberger's future death. It is assumed the ascending figure at the end of the lamento on the death of Ferdinand IV is a depiction on his ascension to heaven. Apparently he took a speed pedelec, given the tempo in Van Asperen's performance. In general his tempi were well judged, though. One recognizes several features of his teacher Leonhardt's playing, such as the subtle rubato and the small gestures, based on a thorough knowledge of rhetorics. Van Asperen is a prominent advocate of Froberger, and that showed here. His recital was a compelling portrait of a true master of the keyboard.

The recital by Johannes Keller the next day was particularly interesting. That was not so much due to the fact that the entire programme was devoted to Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, but rather to the uncommon instrument Keller played. It is called a 'double harpsichord' and is a copy of an instrument by Ruckers. It is a 'transposing harpsichord': the upper manual is tuned a quarter higher than the lower manual. Before the concert Keller explained its peculiarities, such as the fact that it has two sets of strings on both manuals. During his recital he indicated which of those sets he was going to use. Unfortunately the playing list in the programme was entirely wrong, and Keller forgot to tell which piece he was going to play. Never mind, it was a most fascinating recital. Especially the lower manual had the qualities to produce a sound which is pretty close to that of an organ. Keller believes that this instrument sheds a different light on the conventional differentiation between 'organ works' and 'harpsichord pieces' in Sweelinck's oeuvre. He ended his recital with theFantasia Ut re mi fa sol la, which received a brilliant performance, not only thanks to Keller's playing but also the harpsichord. Such instruments definitely deserve to be more often used. It is a highly interesting and important addition to the stock of historical keyboard instruments used today.

The attendance of harpsichord recitals is partly dependent on who is playing. The last recital I heard was given by Pierre Hantaï and the audience was larger than at all the recitals I attended. That has much to do with his fame as a performer.He is well represented on disc and has been at the festival several times. That does not imply that the performances of such an artist are the best, and comparisons between performers who play different repertoire is not very useful anyway. That said, Hantaï was in supreme form. He was to play a programme of pieces by Bach, many of them from early in his career, and he started rather quietly. Then he announced that he was including a suite by Froberger. That made for an interesting comparison with Van Asperen's Froberger recital. Hantaï was the more extroverted and energetic performer, which does not take anything away from the former's performance. There are different legitimate ways to play Froberger. In the Ouverture in d minor (BWV 995) Hantaï really let his hair down. In the chorale prelude Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten (BWV 691) he added many ornaments, and I just wondered what his former teacher Leonhardt would have thought about that. The last item, the Toccata in e minor (BWV 994), was also the most brilliant and exciting piece and brought the recital to a rousing end. This event was quite something and rightly caused great enthousiasm from the audience.

A festival like this offers the opportunity to observe the latest trends in the performance of early music. What are going to be the next developments at the scene? One of them may be the increasing interest in improvisation and the composition of 'early music'. One of its exponents is the violinist Eva Saladin, who was one of the artists in residence of this year's edition. She gave a recital in Hertz, together with the harpsichordist Johannes Keller. The title of their concert summed up what it was about: "Composition versus improvisation". The music was taken from the time around 1600. The two artists mixed compositions with improvisations of their own, in this case especially at the violin. The programme started with Byrd's Variations on Hughe Ashton's Ground, and later we heard Byrd's arrangement of Dowland's Pavana Lachrymae. In both cases Eva Saladin played one of the parts. She moved partly away from the original in Sweelinck's variations on Onder een linde groen. Once she played one of the parts in Sweelinck's variations, and then added her own. This concept was also followed in the last item, Basso ostinato Balleth del Granduca, in which Sweelinck's variations were the core. Eva Saladin went a step further when she played her own divisions on Lassus's chanson Susanne un jour. Two compositions were played as they were written by Johann Schop. Two brilliant pieces, which received excellent performances by Saladin and Keller. But the main attraction were the improvisations, in which Saladin showed her great skills in this department. The treatises published around 1600 include musical examples as illustrations, but these were never intended to be played as written. They were examples to learn from and to emulate. If performers of our time use these treatises for what they were intended for, that is a great step forward. Eva Saladin is one of those who show the way.

A few days later she returned at the platform in a different constellation, as director of the ensemble Il Profondo, with a programme of instrumental music from Austria. The title of the concert was "virtuosic violin consort". I didn't quite understand the use of the term 'violin consort' here, because that suggests some similarity with a consort of viols. However, in fact only one piece, a Sonata in g minor by Giovanni Valentini, suggested a consort of equal instruments. Only this piece - quite strange, for instance with regard to harmony - was performed by the players sitting in a circle. The other pieces were for several strings and basso continuo. The pogramme opened with a sonata from Biber's Fidicinium sacro-profanum and included three sonatas by his brilliant pupil Romanus Weichlein, which also offer quite some surprises. A sonata by Bertali had a solo part for double bass, according to the playing list, but that part was played on the cello by Jonathan Pesek, who interestingly played with an underhand bow grip. Saladin was the soloist in a sonata by Pandolfo Mealli. This was a most interesting and compelling concert, thanks to the quality and peculiarities of the selected pieces, but also the energetic and intensive playing of the ensemble, which often reminded me of the late Musica antiqua Köln. Johannes Keller played the basso continuo on a larger organ than the common positives, with a much broader palette of colours. That had a substantial and positive effect on the interpretation.

"If strings could speak" - that was the title of a recital by the Austrian violinist Gunar Letzbor and his ensemble Ars Antiqua Austria. With his choice of pieces from the German-speaking regions he proved that strings can indeed speak. Sometimes they speak a rather strange language. That is certainly the case with Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, who often comes up with something unusual. Letzbor played two sonatas from his collection Sonatae, violino solo of 1681. In the Sonata VI Biber asks the player to retune his instrument after the second movement, a passacaglia, in order to create a darker sound. Letzbor opted for a more practical solution and used a different violin. The Sonata III is one of the strangest pieces of the baroque era one is likely to hear. It includes not only strong contrasts in tempi, but also a number of weird effects. One is inclined to think that the player is adding some of his own, but that is not Letzbor's style. He remains true to what the composer requires and does not play for the gallery. Biber just was a rather odd fellow. Letzbor started with a sonata by the little-known Heinrich Döbel whose compositions have been preserved in Kremsier. It is a virtuosic work, bearing witness to the brilliance of the German/Austrian violin school. The third composer in the programme was Schmelzer, who was represented with one of his few written-out pieces on a basso ostinato. Letzbor often has something particular to offer, the result of his own research or that of his colleagues. In this case it was his lutenist Hubert Hofmann, who discovered lutes of different sizes, which were used for the realisation of the basso continuo part. They act as a lute ensemble, and this practice seems to have been a Salzburg speciality. Letzbor stated that the exploration of this way of performing the basso continuo is in its early stages, but he expects further research to have quite interesting results. That is certainly a development to keep an eye on. Also interesting was the use of a larger organ, built after Italian instruments of the early 17th century. Such an instrument lends the basso continuo much more variety in colours, in addition to having more presence because of greater dynamic possibilities. As such an organ was also used at the concert by Il Profondo I just mentioned, this may well be another development of the years to come. As Letzbor is a brilliant player, and his colleagues act at the same level, this was a compelling, surprising and quite exciting concert.

My last day at the festival started in Hertz, where we were offered another programme with music from Central Europe, and in particular connected to the Habsburg court. Augustin Lusson (violin) and Daria Zemele (harpsichord) played music by Ignazio Albertini, Froberger, Biber and Georg Muffat. The programme's title was "on fire" and that certainly goes for the three violin sonatas played in this concert. The three pieces showed strong similarity and undoubtedly are based on the same aesthetic ideals. Husson is a young and virtuosic player, whom I heard in Utrecht some years ago and who made quite an impression. With his performances at this concert he confirmed my positive assessment. His articulation and dynamics were in the interest of a truly rhetorical interpretation. Daria Zemele played some keyboard pieces by Froberger (his lamento on the death of Ferdinand III and the Toccata VIII) and the Passacaglia in g minor by Muffat. I was far less impressed by her performances than by Lusson's. They were alright but nothing more. In the case of Muffat I was longing for the end of the piece, which is a pretty bad sign. I also found the sound of her harpsichord a bit dull. For me this was a concert with two faces. It seems to me that somehow the musical temperaments of these two artists don't really match. But they obviously think differently.

That brings to a close my report of this year's Festival Early Music Utrecht. Thematically it was highly interesting, even though the connection between rhetorics and the music performed was not always made clear. That said, there were all sors of events, in which the festival's theme was discussed, but as I focussed on the concerts, I could not attend any of them. The performances I was able to attend were generally of a high level. There were some that did not quite live up to the expectations, but also some that were exciting and will go down into the history of this festival as some of its most memorable moments. That certainly goes for Caurroy's Missa pro defunctis (Doulce Mémoire), the Intermedi to La Pellegrina (Skip Sempé) and Cavalieri's Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo (Vox Luminis). Eva Saladin and Sébastien Daucé were excellent choices as artists in residence.

I also have to compliment the organization and all its volunteers on the smooth way the complicated procedure of admittance to the concerts was handled. I feared this was going to be a big problem and could well disrupt the entire festival. It did not. Despite all the rules and limitations, this edition was one of the best in the festival's recent history.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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