musica Dei donum
Festival Early Music Utrecht 2023
The Festival Early Music Utrecht 2023 had an interesting theme. The programme had several terms on its cover, which described what it was about: "rethink, renaissance, recycle, revival, replay, restoration", and - as the ultimate aim of each festival - "rejoice". Basically the purpose of the festival was to explore how several eras have treated what had come down to them from the past. During the course of history composers have linked up with tradition, tried to revive or recreate, or break with it and come up with new things.
I have to confess that when I first saw the programme, I did not jump for joy. There were quite a number of concerts which included music from a time that is far beyond my interest and expertise. A second look revealed that there was also much to be enjoyed by those, like me, who are not very open to music from the 19th century and beyond.
The theme of the festival was displayed in three concerts on Friday afternoon by the Huelgas Ensemble , which preceded the official opening concert at Friday night. The lyrics were included in the programme, but the names of the composers were not mentioned. The audience was invited to guess whether a piece was from before 1600 or after 1900. In these programmes we heard some pieces of the 20th century that were influenced by the polyphony of the Renaissance. In most cases it was pretty easy to recognize which were the 'modern' items. Max Reger played a prominent part in all three concerts, and his music may be polyphonic, but his harmonic language is clearly different from that of earlier times. In particular the pieces by Willem Ceuleers (*1962), once a singer in the Huelgas Ensemble, were not easy to recognize. His Stabat mater did sound like a piece from the 16th century, and it was the only item which I really thought to be from that time. The same goes for his mass on a popular song for the Dutch feast of St Nicholas. Being from the Netherlands, I recognized it as something I had heard before. However, it is quite impressive how Ceuleers managed to use the melody for a mass, without making it sound ridiculous or making a gimmick of it. The first piece of the first concert was Perotinus' Viderunt omnes; I can't remember having heard the Huelgas Ensemble in that kind of repertoire, and I found the performance something I had to get used to. I wondered about the piano episodes: the composer certainly did not indicate it, so this must be a decision on the part of Van Nevel. The Reger pieces were probably the surprise package. In the coming months the Huelgas Ensemble is going to perform a complete Reger programme, which is quite surprising. The mostly rather intimate style of singing of the ensemble made way for powerful eruptions of sound in some of Reger's pieces, especially O Tod, wie bitter bist du, in line with its content. It made quite an impression, which was also due to the performance. I really enjoyed these concerts, although some of the music is not exactly what I like to listen to.
From these concerts to the first chapter of this review is a small step.
The 19th century and history
The 19th century is the age of history. Some famous historians published their often highly personal accounts of world history, such as Leopold von Ranke and Jacob Burckhardt. It was also the time composers became interested in music of the past. In the second half of the century the first edition of Bach's complete oeuvre was published. Several composers studied and played Bach's music, among them Beethoven, Spohr, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt and Brahms. The latter went even further back: he became acquainted with the oeuvre of Heinrich Schütz, and the latter's Musicalische Exequien influenced his own Ein deutsches Requiem. The ensemble Vox Luminis  recorded Schütz's work early in its existence, and has performed it many times since. Its recording strongly contributed to its reputation as one of the best ensembles in the field of early music, and in particular in German music of the 17th century. The ensemble's founder and director Lionel Meunier and Jérôme Lejeune, producer of the Ricercar label, considered that it would be interesting to put together a work comparable with Brahms's Requiem, preferably with settings of the same texts by German composers of the 17th century. This resulted in a CD recording which has been released recently on the Ricercar label. The ensemble's performance in the festival included the same pieces. It is amazing how much German sacred repertoire of high quality from the 17th century is available, which is still completely unknown and is waiting to be rediscovered. How many people have heard of Andreas Scharmann, Heinrich Schwemmer or Wolfgang Carl Briegel? Even the largest part of the oeuvre of someone like Johann Hermann Schein is still unrecorded. Recently the oeuvre of Andreas Hammerschmidt has been given some attention, for instance through a disc by Vox Luminis, and his Easter motet Der Tod ist verschlungen is an impressive specimen of his art. Every single piece was highly expressive, and as Vox Luminis is one of the experts in German sacred music, each piece received a completely idiomatic performance. It is hard to imagine that such music leaves any listener unmoved. The audience rightly reacted with a long and ovational applause, which resulted in an encore: another gem by Hammerschmidt, a setting of Psalm 121, Ich hebe meine Augen auf zu den Bergen. It is a dialogue between a tenor soloist and an ensemble of five voices, supported by five strings and basso continuo; the solo part was excellently sung by Jacob Lawrence. This concert was definitely one of the highlights of this year's festival.
Vox Luminis  later turned to Brahms himself, and performed one of his lesser-known works, the Missa Canonica, in a programme which also included Bach's motet Jesu, meine Freude, and a motet by Mendelssohn. It is interesting to hear how an ensemble specializing in early music approaches later music. The performances of Vox Luminis reminded me of those by the Huelgas Ensemble in motets by Reger. One may wonder whether the clarity and transparency they aim at in early music - which is their core business - is also the ideal of later times. Do we probably get a projection of the performance practice of Renaissance and Baroque on the music of the romantic era? That is a difficult question to answer. The fact is that in 19th-century music we still bear the burden of traditional performance practice. It is unlikely that traditional performances - a big sound, rich in vibrato - are in accordance with the way of singing in the time of Mendelssohn and Brahms. The Huelgas Ensemble and Vox Luminis may be closer to 19th-century performance practice than we might be inclined to think. In Brahms, Vox Luminis consisted of 24 singers - about the size of a chamber choir. That seems a good line-up to me. Bach's Jesu, meine Freude was performed with 18 voices and that seemed a bit problematic. I'm not claiming that one voice per part is the only way to perform this motet, but - given the structure of the work - it seems the most logical. In the performance I missed the sharp edges; I would have liked a clearer articulation and stronger dynamic accents. Even so, this was another fine performance by Vox Luminis.
In the next chapter we turn to the polyphonic tradition that has come down to us from the Renaissance.
As I wrote at the start of this review, one of the terms on the cover of the festival's programme was 'recycle'. A form of recycling is the use of existing material for a mass, which was common practice during a large part of the Renaissance. That material could be plainchant, a motet by a composer himself or a colleague, or rather a popular tune. One of the most popular tunes was L'homme armé. Around forty masses have been written which are based on this song. A few of them were performed during the festival in the Cathedral.
The concert of the Ensemble Lucidarium  under the direction of Avery Gosfield could be taken as an introduction. The song L'homme armé is still surrounded by mystery. The author of the text and/or the composer of the tune are not known, and we also don't know for sure who was meant by the 'armed man'. It may refer to the Burgundian Duke Charles the Bold (who reigned from 1465/67 to 1477), and the ensemble took this option as the starting point of a programme under the title 'L'homme désarmé'. It aimed at presenting music from the perspective of the victims of Charles the Bold, because he was a rather nasty fellow. The ensemble had collected texts that for the most part have been handed down without music. In order to make them suitable for performance, from various sources music had been selected that was originally intended for other texts. They were interspersed with excerpts from historical sources, most of which were recited by a solo voice, probably on 'new' melodies inspired by the music of the Renaissance. The programme was entertaining and the performances pretty good. The ensemble comprises very good singers and players, who performed with great enthusiasm, which is nice to see. However, I wondered whether the use of so many different instruments is historically tenable. Moreover, in my experience it tends to distract from what the music is about. Less is sometimes more. That said, it is commendable that the 'other side' of 15th-century society had the floor for a change.
The first L'homme armé mass I heard was one of two written by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. In his time writing such a mass was already something of the past, also because the Council of Trent had forbidden the use of secular material as the basis of sacred music. The mass was the main work in a concert by the British vocal ensemble Stile Antico , one of the regulars at the festival. In between the mass sections, a few motets on texts from the Song of Songs were performed. The programme opened and ended with a Marian motet. Palestrina's music does not have a generally good reputation. Some find it a bit boring. I think that is mainly due to the performance: if it is flat and undifferentiated, Palestrina can indeed be unexciting. That was different here. Stile Antico did not shy away from considerable dynamic contrasts. Although we don't find that much text expression in Palestrina, those passages in which the music illustrates the text were effectively conveyed. The combination of motets on texts from the Song of Songs and Marian motets makes much sense, as since ancient times the young woman in the Song of Songs has been identified with the Virgin Mary. Stile Antico comprised twelve voices, and the Song of Songs motets were performed with the same number of singers as the mass and the Marian motets. That seems historically debatable, as Palestrina's collection of these motets was not intended for liturgical use, but rather for domestic performance. A line-up of one voice per part would have been more appropriate. Like the mass and the Marian motets, these pieces received an engaging performance, but in a somewhat more restrained manner, and that seems entirely right.
The three next masses brought us to Spain and to the only three Spanish composers who used the song for a mass. The Portuguese Officium Ensemble, directed by Pedro Teixeira , performed one of the two L'homme armé masses by Cristóbal de Morales, who can be considered the first composer of the period known as the 'Golden Age' of Spanish music. The singers came to the stage from the back of the Cathedral, with the men singing the song loudly twice. The sections of the mass were interspersed with motets by a Spanish and a Portuguese composer, Alonso Lobo and Estêvão de Brito respectively. After the mass, several motets by three Portuguese composers - Duarte Lobo, Manuel Cardoso and Filipe de Magalhães - and two Spanish masters - Victoria and Guerrero - were sung. Although the Officium Ensemble has only two singers more than Stile Antico, there is quite some difference between the two ensembles. This is mainly due to the fact that the Officium Ensemble has a conductor. That does not necessarily make a difference, but it did. Teixeira beats time quite strictly and that has an audible effect. The performances lacked some flexibility and were more straighforward than those of Stile Antico. The Officium Ensemble is undoubtedly a good one, and overall I enjoyed the concert, also because it included music by some little-known masters. Even so, I missed something. In my experiece, sacred music by composers of the Iberian peninsula has an emotional touch and passion that one does not find in the same manner in music from elsewhere. Too little of that I noticed in these performances. A little more freedom, for instance in the tempi (which seemed sometimes too fast), and stronger dynamic differentation would have done the performances good.
Francisco Guerrero also wrote two L'homme armé masses. The first of them is based on one of the L'homme armé masses of his teacher Morales. It therefore could be considered a case of twofold recycling. In the performance by Cantar Lontano under the direction of Marco Mencoboni , the sections of the mass alternated with motets by Guerrero. Mencoboni also included plainchant, and by doing so he gave the impression that he aimed at a kind of liturgical reconstruction. Unfortunately there was no information about which feast he may have had in mind. It must have been a Marian feast, as the motets and plainchant were about the Virgin Mary. A notable aspect of the performance was the use of an organ, played by Nicola Lamon. The instrument was the so-called 'Monteverdi organ', that was already used in the festival of last year. It was a substantial addition to the performances, but I would have liked to know what was the reason for its participation. In some sections of the mass the ladies moved to the gallery of the large organ of the Cathedral. It had a spatial effect, but I have no idea what the reason may have been. Like the Officium Ensemble, Cantar Lontano has a conductor, but Mencoboni is much more flexible in his direction than Pedro Teixeira, which resulted in performances which in my opinion came closer to the character of Iberian sacred music than that of the Officium Ensemble. Cantar Lontano proved, as in previous festivals, to be an excellent ensemble.
For the third Spanish L'homme armé mass we moved to Francisco de Peñalosa (c1470-1528), who enjoyed great prestige in his day, but is little known today, partly due to the great attention paid to Spanish composers of later generations. The composition of the mass seems to have been inspired by political motives: the victory of the Aragonese king Ferdinand over the French king Louis XII, the 'armed man'. It may explain why the melody of L'homme armé in this mass is so clearly audible. It made the ensemble Seconda Prat!ca  to place the mass in a 'political' context. The programme opened with a song by Peñalosa: "My arms are tired of turning the dead. I found all the French, but I did not find King Ferdinand." The anonymous Viva, viva Rey Fernando closed the programme. The sections of the mass were alternated with liturgical chants, polyphonic or in plainchant. The singers sang standing around a choirbook, as this ensemble always does, just like the Capella Pratensis, both under the influence of Rebecca Stewart, who was 'guest maestra di capella' in this performance and also sang herself. She should not have done so. Technically the performance was not perfect, but as a whole it certainly had an appeal. However, I wonder whether this way of singing - around a choirbook, with a small ensemble of eight singers - was the practice in Spain, or whether liturgical music was rather sung by larger ensembles. Rebecca Stewart also gave a short introduction that most people may have understood - because she did it in Dutch - but the audience in the back of the Cathedral may not have heard. One of the Spanish singers also recited a text a few times: everyone must have heard it, because he did so very loudly, but few may have understood, because those texts were in Spanish. These were two things that contributed to the fact that this concert could not completely convince, despite the interesting concept.
For the last mass in the L'homme armé cycle, we moved to more familiar territory: Josquin Desprez. He composed two such masses, and both were part of a mega job of The Tallis Scholars under the direction of Peter Phillips [27/28]: the performance of all eighteen masses by Josquin. It is not surprising that this ensemble was invited to do so, because in 2021 - the Josquin year - Phillips completed the recording of all masses on CD. Moreover, this ensemble always attracts a large audience. I've never quite understood why so many people swoon over The Tallis Scholars. Of course the technical perfection is admirable, but musically I never really liked their performances. Phillips's interpretation has little to do with historical performance practice. That is not my judgment, but that of Phillips himself. He lets his ensemble sing the way he likes it. That was, for example, a rather rigid approach to rhythm and the avoidance of marked dynamic contrasts. He also avoids to emphasize the scarce elements of text expression. I attended the first two concerts, both - like the whole cycle - in the Cathedral, including the Missa L'homme armé super voces musicales. I noticed that Phillips has become more flexible in his interpretation. Rhythmically it is all still very strict; he conducts the ensemble like a choir and in this he resembles Pedro Teixeira. But the performances were dynamically more differentiated and at certain moments he let the content of the text come out well. Two concerts in a row, with five masses, lasting about three hours in total, is a long sit, but in the end I enjoyed it more than I expected. And of course it should be mentioned that the performance and recording of all of Josquin's masses is of the utmost importance. If the popularity of The Tallis Scholars has the effect of making his masses better known - including the less frequently performed ones - that can only be applauded.
Revival is the name of the game in the next chapter.
Composers and the literary tradition
Numerous composers from all eras have set poems, either by contemporaries or by poets from the past. Some poets had such a reputation that their texts inspired composers of a much later time. Examples are Vergil and Petrarca. The former's poems inspired the Spanish composer Juan del Elcina (1468-1529/30), whose songs were the subject of a concert by Música Temprana, directed by Adrián Rodríguez van der Spoel . Del Encina's songs and those by some of his contemporaries included in this concert, were mostly taken from the Cancionero de Palacio. They are 'popular' in character, but that doesn't mean they have to be performed in a 'popular' way. This kind of songs are often performed with a pretty large number of instruments. That was also the case in this festival; more about that later. However, this and other songbooks were intended for performance at court, for a few voices and a few 'soft' instruments, such as recorder, fiddle, viola da gamba and plucked instruments. That is how they were performed in this concert, and Música Temprana's performances did these songs and their content full justice. Ultimately, this way they have a much stronger impact than when performed with a large ensemble. Introverted songs were cleverly alternated with more theatrical pieces, and some works were performed instrumentally. Música Temprana comprises excellent singers who also know how to express the lyrics visually without exaggeration and without directing the audience's attention to themselves. Here a real ensemble was at work that captivated the audience for seventy minutes and was rightly rewarded with an ovational applause. One would hope that one day this ensemble will record the Cancionero de Palacio - and similar songbooks - on CD. This is the way these songs should be performed.
The Collegium Vocale Gent under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe  focused on the poems of Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), which exerted great attraction on composers of several centuries later. The concert opened and closed with madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi. He was a great innovator, which was demonstrated in his madrigals with instruments and basso continuo. In between were madrigals in the stile antico, by the likes of Luca Marenzio, Cipriano de Rore and Luzzasco Luzzaschi, who in their own way were also innovators as they turned to a graphic illustration of the text. One can leave it to Herreweghe and his singers to highlight these features in an eloquent way. It resulted in a compelling night, which made crystal clear why the madrigal was such a revered genre in the 16th and early 17th centuries. This is music to be performed in intimate surroundings, and from that perspective the large hall of TivoliVredenburg was not the ideal venue. The singing was excellent, but it has to be said that the voices did not blend as well as one may expect from this ensemble. That seems due to the fact that in recent years the personnel of the ensemble seems to change regularly, more than in the past. I noted a vibrato in some of the voices, especially that of the bass Jimmy Halliday. It did not spoil my enjoyment, though. The instrumentalists of the ensemble made a substantial contribution to the concert, in particular Anais Chen (violin) and Lambert Colson (cornett) who played diminutions by Giovanni Bassano and Francesco Rognoni Taeggio respectively. Lastly, I cannot help to mention that the use of a cello in this repertoire is anachronistic.
In a way, Salamone Rossi (1570-c1630) was also inspired by literature of the past, especially Book of Psalms in the Old Testament. However, for him these were not just literature, as the Old Testament was the foundation of the faith of the Jewish community in Mantua, to which he belonged. Rossi is a fascinating figure, who, as a Jew, was able to play a prominent role in musical life in Mantua, even though Jews were heavily discriminated against in his time. He was also controversial within the Jewish community, because not everyone considered his polyphonic settings of Hebrew psalms suitable for the synagogue. It is precisely these psalms and other spiritual works on Hebrew texts (published 1622/23) that have become Rossi's most famous pieces. They are relatively old-fashioned for their time, as they are written in the stile antico. This is also the case with his Italian madrigals, although he also composed pieces for voices and basso continuo. His instrumental music is much more modern. The ensemble Profeti della Quinta  had selected some Hebrew psalms, madrigals and instrumental pieces, which resulted in a nice and interesting survey of Rossi's oeuvre. For this occasion this vocal ensemble had been extended with the violinists Eva Saladin and Lathika Vithanage, and Ori Harmelin on theorbo. Profeti della Quinta is a specialist in Rossi's Hebrew hymns, which were performed in way that is hard to surpass and has a maximum impact. Doron Schleifer, one of the altos of the ensemble, has a truly extraordinary voice of a wide tessitura. In a solo piece he demonstrated that he can explore his top notes without a trace of tension. Lively and expressive playing guaranteed that the qualities of the instrumental works came off to the full. In short, this was a wonderful concert that will have been a revelation to many and will hopefully result in this Italian master's being better known.
The revival of the theatre
Talking about revival, we cannot overlook the genre of opera. It was born in the early 17th century out of the ideal to bring to life the theatre of the Antiquity. Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, generally considered the first 'real' opera in history, is one of the most distinct specimens of that ideal. It is the first of numerous operas and other works for the stage that were composed in the 17th and first half of the 18th century. Such works have always played a modest role in the festival, mainly for financial reasons: a fully-staged opera is a costly affair. And there is actually no suitable space for it: the Stadsschouwburg does have a good stage, but is acoustically unsatisfactory. There are two solutions: either a concertante performance, without any staging, or a semi-scenic performance, for instance with actors moving around on the stage, but without settings and stage properties. For his performance of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, Damien Guillon, directing his ensemble Le Banquet Céleste  from the harpsichord, had opted for the former solution. The soloists were singing from their parts or the score, which made the performance a little static. However, I was glad that there was no staging, which too often is rather tasteless these days. Without staging the full weight of the performance rests upon the shoulders of the singers, who have to convince musically, but also have to compensate, as it were, for the lack of visual effects. From a dramatic point of view, there was little to criticize about the performance. Most singers were convincing in their roles. Victoire Bunel (Ottavia), Paul-Antoine Benos-Djian (Ottone) and Adrien Mathonat (Seneca) made a particularly good impression. The main protagonists - Ray Chenez as Nero and Catherine Trottmann as Poppea - also portrayed their characters convincingly. Stylistically it was a different story. The piece consists largely of recitatives, which must be performed with considerable rhythmical freedom. That didn't always go that well. During the break, Jos van Veldhoven (former artistic director of the Netherlands Bach Society), talking at NPO Classical, which covered the performance, mentioned critically the use of vibrato. He was right: that is a real problem in many performances of early vocal music these days. Singers who master the baroque way of singing are rare; in this performance I have not heard any. In the course of the performance one probably gets used to it and I certainly did appreciate the performance as a whole. Even so, it is a pity that the baroque art of singing is largely neglected. The instrumental part of the performance was excellent, although the prominent role of the recorders and cornetts is debatable.
A performance of Henry Purcell's semi-opera The Fairy Queen as may have taken place in the composer's own time can hardly be reconstructed. William Christie, who performed it in the main hall of TivoliVredenburg with his ensemble Les Arts Florissants , opted for a half-scenic performance. On stage - where there were no properties at all - there was dancing in a modern style, probably something like hip-hop (but I don't know anything about that). The vocal parts were sung by a group of young singers under the name Le Jardin des Voix. This is an admirable project by Christie, with which he gives young singers the opportunity to gain experience in performing and, above all, trains them in singing early music. The results were different: they have all very good voices, but the performances were mixed. The tenors and basses were rather good, the higher voices a little less satisfactory. Unfortunately, the performance of the most beautiful song - O let me weep - was disappointing. Purcell's instrumental music is, as always, irresistible. I will not elaborate further on the dance part. I admire the acrobatic tricks the dancers performed, and the audience thought it was all very entertaining. No doubt it was very good in its way, but I don't like this approach generally. And obviously it has nothing to do with historical performance practice.
Music that is not intended for the stage, can be performed in a theatrical manner. That was the case in the next three concerts to be reviewed here. The ensemble La Tempête, directed by Simon-Pierre Bestion , performed an 'imaginary Requiem' for Emperor Charles V, inspired by a fake ceremony the emperor organised himself. Bestion made no attempt at reconstruction, but offered a compilation of the different musical genres that existed in Charles's empire, with the Requiem as the thread. This resulted in an alternation of sacred and secular pieces and of vocal and instrumental music. In addition, some pieces rooted in Arab culture were inserted. The programme in itself was quite interesting. However, the concept failed to convince me. There were quite a few light effects and clouds of smoke, and the singers moved through the entire large hall of TivoliVredenburg. It made little sense to me. As far as the performances were concerned, these were mostly better but also debatable. The performers took quite a few liberties that seem difficult to defend and did not do the music any good. Songs from the Cancionero de Palacio could not be omitted, and this performance showed that a large vocal and instrumental ensemble is not the appropriate medium for this kind of songs. The same applies to the pieces from the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat. And if one wants to play Arabic-sounding pieces, one should use the appropriate instruments, not a western violin and a (modern) clarinet. The whole thing was also marred by quite a bit of unnecessary noise. The purely polyphonic pieces came out best by far, although not entirely free of the 'Graindelavoix virus'. In short, despite the positive aspects, I have heard better opening concerts.
Theatrical was also a concert by the Spanish vocal ensemble Cantoría . The programme was entitled 'La Guerra/La Guerre', which referred to two works depicting the war. One is Clément Janequin's famous chanson, a favorite showpiece of some ensembles, such as that of Dominique Visse, named after Janequin. The other is a piece by Mateo de Flecha 'el Viejo'. That is a so-called ensalada, a salad of very different textual elements, from very secular to very sacred. Janequin's example was also followed by Matthias Werrecore, from whom we heard La battaglia Taliana. And finally there were two ensaladas by Flecha. This is not 'high art', but in a sense 'popular' music, but of high quality. That is not so easy to perform. It takes excellent vocal technique to get all the onomatopoeia right. It should be presented in a theatrical way, but without becoming coarse. Cantoría succeeded with flying colours. It comprises four singers with excellent voices, and with the right flair and feeling for theatre. On the basis of the more lyrical episodes I conclude that they would be fine interpreters of sacred polyphony and madrigals as well. I very much hope that we can hear Cantoría next year again, when the festival will be devoted to Spanish music.
The music performed by Cantoría was not meant for the theatre, and that also goes for the music performed by the Ensemble Castelkorn . The theatrical elements were the entrance of the players and the way the programme was designed. It was inspired by the central figure in the concert: Johann Heinrich Schmelzer. His sonatas are well known and regularly performed, but his ballet music, which he composed for the carnival at the imperial court in Vienna, is seldom played. The programme opened with an 'overture', which was followed by four episodes, each of them introduced by ballet music from the pen of Schmelzer. The programme also included music by Heinrich Döbel and Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber. There is definitely something theatrical about the latter's Sonata representativa, in which various animals are depicted. This came well off in the performance of violinist Josef ák. In the ballet music, the performers showed to have a good feeling for theatre.
Next another revival: the emergence of the harpsichord in modern times.
The revival of the harpsichord
One of the main developments of the revival of early music and the emergence of historical performance practice concerned the harpsichord. Among the pioneers were Arnold Dolmetsch and Wanda Landowska. A series of recitals on historical keyboard instruments has been a fixed part of the festival from early on. This year only the harpsichord was played, with the virginal figuring as an alternative in the recital by Skip Sempé . In his recital William Byrd was the key figure, but the fact that 2023 is Byrd year - he died in 1623 - was not even mentioned in the notes to the programme. The author rather focused on the revival of interest in the keyboard music of Byrd and of the English virginalists in general by Arnold Dolmetsch and a few others. Byrd is a well-known name today, but I suspect that most early music lovers know his vocal works better than his keyboard music. It was therefore most welcome that Sempé devoted a recital to this part of his oeuvre, placing it in its historical context with pieces by contemporaries such as Orlando Gibbons and Thomas Tomkins, as well as lesser-known masters such as William Inglot and Martin Peerson. This repertoire is not without risk, because it sometimes tempts performers to show off: listen how fast I can play and how nimble my fingers are. Sempé did not give in to that temptation. He took a rather introverted approach and focused on the content. The programme was put together in an intelligent way in that slower pieces, such as pavans, were followed by a faster one, usually a galliard. In between were some variations on then popular tunes. Sempé proved to be a master at the keyboard. This was a worthy tribute to Byrd and his time.
The French harpsichordist Benjamin Alard  brought together four of the greatest keyboard composers from the first half of the 18th century. He started with a suite by Handel, whose keyboard oeuvre is not to everyone's taste. It is known that Gustav Leonhardt avoided it like the plague. The comparison with Bach makes no sense: they were different personalities, and Handel's opera DNA makes itself felt in his keyboard music as well. The challenge is to do justice to its theatrical character without exaggerating and unilaterally emphasizing its virtuosity. That is exactly what Alard did: he revealed the substance below the surface. He chose the same approach to Domenico Scarlatti: he had selected two sonatas which not only require nimble fingers but also a feeling for their lyrical features. They embraced two beautiful pieces by Rameau, L'Egyptienne and L'enharmonique, which received a rather introverted interpretation. Finally, Alard showed his Bach credentials with the Partita No. 5, which was given a differentiated and enthralling performance. The clarity of his playing came especially off in the closing gigue.
Bach also figured prominently in the recital by Léon Berben . At both ends of his programme were the two ricercares from Bach's Musicalisches Opfer. The three-part ricercare is said to have been made by Frederick the Great (perhaps with some help from Bach), while the six-part ricercare is the written-out improvisation on that theme Bach may have played during his visit to Frederick. The chromaticism in these ricercares was the thread of the programme, because there were also several other works that were dominated by chromaticism. In addition to Sweelinck's famous Fantasia chromatica, we heard an unknown transcription of Dowland's Lachrymae Pavan, attributed to his compatriot Ferdinando Richardson. That's a nice piece that should be better known. Berben played two chromatic pieces by Dowland himself, a fantasia and Forlorn Hope Fancy. Richardson's piece can be considered an example of recycling. The same goes for Bach's arrangement of a sonata by Johann Adam Reinken (BWV 965). Berben started his recital with a prelude by Leonhard Scholz (1720-1798), an organist who collected keyboard music by Bach and his son Carl Philipp Emanuel. That prelude is based on a movement from Bach's Partita No. 2. All in all, this was a very interesting programme, which was excellently executed. The chromatic works from the 17th century came out well, although the harpsichord is more suitable for later music. The programme and Berben's analytical and rhetorical playing resulted in a captivating recital. There was nice encore: John Bull's fantasy on a theme by Sweelinck.
The programme played by Tatjana Vorobjova , born in Latvia and living in Germany, seemed to show little coherence. First a few pieces by Johann Krieger (1671-1735) were played, then four sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti and finally, after another piece by Krieger, Bach's Partita No. 3. There is some connection between Krieger and Bach, though: Krieger was one of the composers whose keyboard music was part of the study material of the young Bach. This also included Froberger, who in turn influenced Krieger, for instance in the composition of suites (or partitas) - we heard one of Krieger's Sechs Musicalische Partien (1697) - and the use of the style brisé. The two preludes and the fantasy that were also on the programme have strong improvisational features, which came off very well. There is also a connection between Bach and Scarlatti: it is presumed that Bach was encouraged to compose his Goldberg Variations by Scarlatti's thirty Essercizii that appeared in print. Two lyrical sonatas embraced two faster pieces, all excellently performed. Finally, Bach's Partita No. 3 from Clavier-Übung I; the six partitas show clear differences, for example in their structure. The third partita opens with a fantasia and is followed by the usual allemande, courante (spelled corrente here) and sarabande. Before the gigue that closes the suite, we get a burlesca and a scherzo. Tatjana Vorobjova delivered an outstanding interpretation, with the corrente and the burlesca as highlights. According to her biography, she aims at "sonorous, dynamic, lively and differentiated" interpretations, and she fully lived up to that. The fact that she pays attention to Krieger - she recently recorded the six partitas from 1697 on CD - is most welcome, as he belongs to the 'forgotten' generation of Johann Kuhnau. Krieger's keyboard music deserves more attention and Tatyana Vorobjova is an excellent ambassador for his oeuvre.
We now return to recycling, but of a different kind than we have discussed before.
Music arranged and adapted
In the course of history the practice of adapting and arranging music was widespread. Composers often arranged their own music, for instance for a second performance under different circumstances, or for a different scoring, in order to increase sale. And when music lovers wanted to perform their favourite music, such as arias from operas, they had to adapt them for domestic performance. Two concerts included such repertoire from the 17th and 18th centuries.
However, first I would like to mention a recital with music from the first half of the 16th century. While nowadays the disciplines in music are largely separated, from the Middle Ages to the early Baroque it was very common for singers to accompany themselves on a plucked instrument. A well-known example is Giulio Caccini. Emma-Louise Roux  wants to revive that art. In Cloud Nine, a small hall high at the top of TivoliVredenburg, she sang renaissance chansons and madrigals, accompanying herself on the lute. The songs were interspersed with solo pieces for lute. The pieces she sang are usually notated in polyphony. That means they need to be arranged. In many cases she was able to make use of renaissance arrangements; she also sang some of her own making. The performance of polyphonic vocal music in this form was very common at the time. Vocal pieces could also be performed instrumentally, for example on the lute, and we heard a few examples of that too. Emma-Louise Roux has a beautiful voice that is perfectly suited for this kind of repertoire. Most songs require an intimate and subtle delivery and that is what she is made for. The more extroverted songs also came off well. In addition, she showed herself to be a skilled lutenist, both in the accompaniment and in the lute pieces. Emma-Louise Roux is a name to remember.
Two concerts with baroque arias and songs took place in Hertz, the chamber music hall of TivoliVredenburg. For the first, the stage had turned into a living room of uncertain age, with an old chair and two old tables with ditto lamps. The reason was that the soprano Elisabeth Hetherington and the ensemble Postscript  would perform pocket-size opera arias. Collections of such arias appeared in London for the benefit of music lovers who wanted to perform them at home. Few instruments were needed: a transverse flute, two violins, viola, cello and harpsichord. Obviously, Handel had to be included, as he was by far the most popular opera composer in his time. In addition there were arias by Johann Adolf Hasse and Giovanni Bononcini, some anonymous pieces as well as an aria by a certain Francesco Ballarotti, whom I had never heard of. It was an interesting programme and one wonders why music from operas is not performed in this way more often, especially considering the popularity of such arrangements in the 18th century. Given the setting, it was rather odd that Elisabeth Hetherington, when she started singing an aria, rose from her seat, moved around and made gestures as if she were standing on the opera stage. It is extremely unlikely that pocket-size arias were performed this way in the London living rooms of the 18th century. This concert was therefore another example of an interesting concept that has not been worked out consistently and therefore did not really live up to its promise. Years ago I heard Elisabeth Hetherington in songs with lute; she made an excellent impression with her presentation and way of singing. Unfortunately, she has not developed in a positive way. While she kept her vibrato under control in several arias, there were also times when it was too much. In any case, an intimate setting such as was chosen here, requires a more restrained interpretation. The concert was certainly not bad, but could have been better. The instrumental part was particularly good, with beautiful solos by Aysha Willis (transverse flute), especially in Hasse's aria 'L'augelletto in lacci stretta' from La Didone abbandonata, and a fine obbligato role by cellist Octavie Dostaler-Lalonde.
The theatrical presentation was a mistake, in my view, and that also goes for the next concert. Lucía Caihuela (mezzo-soprano), Aysha Wills (transverse flute) and Artem Belogurov (harpsichord)  gave a concert with songs from English songbooks of the 18th century, which also included pieces composed in the second half of that century. The difference was that in this concert only songs were performed on English texts and, moreover, all pieces were original, no arrangements of compositions for larger ensembles, as was the case in the previous concert. The content did not differ substantially, because, like the opera arias, many songs are about love. Like Italian baroque cantatas, they breathe the spirit of Arcadia, the ideal imaginary world of the upper classes. The programme was divided into five chapters, each consisting of vocal and instrumental works. Most of the composers are little known today, such as Michael Christian Festing, John Frederick Lampe and Maurice Greene. In addition, some anonymous pieces were performed. Lucía Caihuela has a very beautiful voice, which is perfectly suited for early music. I'd like to hear her in larger-scale works. Here I found the vocal part disappointing, not because she didn't sing well, but because the performance was rather one-dimensional. Almost every song was sung at full power, with forceful bellows, and that seems to me not how music that was intended for performance in a domestic circle has to be performed. The concert suffered from the same problem as that of Elisabeth Heatherington and Postscript. The last block was devoted to drinking songs. There was some manipulation with a wine bottle (empty, of course). That was a bit over the top in my opinion. I liked Aysha Wills' playing best - a name to remember.
In 1885 Alessandro Parisotti published three volumes of arie antiche, arranged for voice and piano. Singers from past and present, including those specialized in early music, have turned to these volumes for study and performance. They have even been the subject of recordings, which were mostly in accordance with the modern standards of performance practice. It would be interesting to hear those arias as they may have been performed at the end of the 19th century, with a piano from that time.
In Hertz, the young mezzo-soprano Sophia Faltas and lutenist Arjen Verhage  performed a selection of arias from this source. In a number of cases Verhage had chosen to transcribe the piano part for the lute, but in other cases the adaptation went so far that Faltas and Verhage turned to the original, as in arias by Monteverdi. In addition to arias by him and other 17th-century masters, we also heard items from the 18th century, by Caldara. Marcello, Handel and Pergolesi. That resulted in quite a few stylistic differences and they came out very well, also because of the way they were interpreted. Sophia Faltas, whom I had not heard of before, has a very beautiful and pleasant voice, which she used effectively. I was pleased to note that she is aware of the importance of dynamic differentiation and used the technique of the messa di voce where appropriate. I felt that she could have used a little more ornamentation, though. The character of each aria came off through the presentation. Sophia Faltas sang some seated, in others she was standing or moving around. She made a bit of theatre of 'Stizzoso, mio stizzoso', an aria of the maid from Pergolesi's intermezzo La serva padrona, and rightly so; one felt immediately that this was a comedy. Faltas received perfect support from Verhage, whose accompaniment was nice and balanced; he also played a few solos. This recital was a pleasant way to become acquainted with a singer whom I would like to hear again in the years to come.
The Capella de la Torre, directed by Katharina Bäuml , performed different music in various arrangements. The ensemble consists of wind instruments, extended by percussion, lute and organ, and often also by singers. In this case there was only one, the soprano Margaret Hunter. She has a very nice voice, but is somewhat weak in the low register, and in such passages she was not clearly audible. This was partly due to the acoustics in the Jacobikerk, which was not the ideal venue for this concert. The programme mainly featured Spanish music from the Renaissance. Part of the programme was a motet by Palestrina, which is included in a Spanish codex in an arrangement for wind instruments. This apparently was used as an excuse to perform all music this way. In the programme were also songs from the Cancionero de Palacio, and here the use of loud wind instruments resulted in a performance that may be exciting, but is in conflict with the nature of these songs. Such a performance can best be taken as a contemporary arrangement. The programme was a little too much 'music for the millions' in my opinion: it consisted mainly of well-known stuff, and several pieces were already popular in the early days of the early music revival, for example in recordings of Musica Reservata. That in itself is no problem, but one would expect a little more adventure in a festival concert. The quality of singing and playing was beyond criticism, but it does bother me when information about the way music was performed in the time it was written, is largely ignored.
In our time composers have been inspired by music from the past, in particular the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Examples are Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. One could say that they 're-create' the music of the past with their own means and in their own particular idiom. Two concerts shed light on other ways of 're-creation': improvisation and ornamentation.
An interesting development has taken place in the last five years or so. Specialists in early music have started to make themselves familiar with the art of improvisation. This art is very common among organists: it is part of their education. That is different in other disciplines. It is not surprising that this art seems to be revived in early music in particular. Much of the music composed in the renaissance and baroque periods is rooted in the practice of improvisation. Composers, who were usually virtuoso on one or more instruments, often wrote music for their own use. They sometimes transcribed that music later, for example for students or for printed editions. The violinist Eva Saladin is one of the pioneers in improvisation. At the 2021 festival, she and harpsichordist Johannes Keller already presented some samples of their experiments in this field. This year, Saladin  played a whole programme of improvisations, although it should be mentioned that these are partly prepared, for instance with regard to harmony. In her recital she played together with harpist Vera Schnider and harpsichordist Dirk Börner. For the improvisations, the musicians were inspired by composers of the 17th century, such as Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, Johann Paul von Westhoff and Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli. The analysis of their works resulted into partly improvised sonatas and suites for violin with or without basso continuo as well as pieces for harp with violin or harpsichord and harpsichord solo. Börner played a chromatic fantasy based on examples from the early 17th century, and a toccata for harpsichord and harp was also based on music from that time. The result was completely convincing, and if it had not been announced in the festival programme and in the oral explanations by Eva Saladin that we were going to hear improviations, the listener may have thought that the artists were playing 'real' baroque music. The concert showed what can be achieved by thorough study and performances of music from the 17th century. The artists had fully internalized the style of the time, and there was nothing artificial in their improvisations. It was 'authentic' baroque music anno 2023 and an impressive example of 're-creation'.
The programme of the ensemble Ludus Instrumentalis  was also about re-creation, although it did not include any works from the pen of its members, but four sonatas for violin and basso continuo by Franz Benda, star violinist at the court of Frederick the Great. The custom of adding embellishments to what is written down by the composer is fully established in early music. Composers expected performers to ornament their music, especially in repeats, according to their own taste. They usually performed their music themselves and then also added embellishments. These were improvised, so we usually don't know how they did it. This makes written-out ornamentation in the hand of composers all the more interesting and important. It is therefore understandable that a manuscript containing sonatas by Benda, recently discovered in Berlin, raised the interest of performers, because it includes his own embellishments. The reason is not known, but it is likely that they had a pedagogical purpose. In this concert, violinist Evgeny Sviridov played the four sonatas with Benda's own ornamentation. That is actually completely against the rules, because - as said - they should be improvised. Written embellishments are not meant to be taken literally, but to be studied and to encourage the player to come up with embellishments that are just as good or even - in a fit of audacity - to surpass them. But when such an important source is discovered, it is understandable and praiseworthy that an interpreter wants to show what the composer has done. Obviously that is not so easy to recognize in a concert by an audience without seeing the notes, especially if the music itself is not known. And that is the case with Benda. In about forty years of reviewing CDs, perhaps ten or so recordings of music by Franz Benda have landed on my desk. Listening to the sonatas performed by Svidirov one is surprised that they are seldom played and recorded. They are technically brilliant, but also intrinsic beautiful compositions, which should be much better known. Violinists really don't have to play the standard repertoire all the time. That is why it is laudable that Sviridov likes to leave the trodden paths. He is a real virtuoso and felt like a fish in water in these sonatas. The result was a compelling recital, in which the line-up of the basso continuo was varied: two sonatas were performed with cello (Pavel Serbin), theorbo (Liza Solovey) and harpsichord (Stanislav Gres), one with only harpsichord and one with cello and theorbo. Sviridov's colleagues played the bass with great commitment and contributed substantially to the result. It is a pity that this recital attracted such a small audience. This is undoubtedly the result of Benda's lack of fame. It's high time something is done about that.
Lastly, a concert that is not easy to rank among one of the categories mentioned above. The ensemble La fonte musica, conducted by Michele Pasotti , is a regular guest at the festival. It makes an appearance almost every year and rightly so, because it always comes up with interesting programmes which are given excellent performances. This time it focused on the oeuvre of Johannes Ciconia in the Pieterskerk. In the liner-notes to the concert he was presented as an innovator as he merged the French ars nova and what is generally called the Trecento. It suggests that he has a status that is comparable to that of Monteverdi, in whose oeuvre Renaissance and Baroque appear simultaneously. In this concert we got an alternation of sacred and secular works, interspersed with some plainchant and anonymous instrumental dances. The programme came perfectly off in this medieval church; especially in the sacred works - among them some mass movements - the spacious acoustics were a great advantage. The ensemble features four excellent singers: the sopranos Alena Dantcheva and Francesca Cassinari and the tenors Giancula Ferrarini and Massimo Altieri. The two slide trumpets and the two fiddles played a substantial role, in addition to Pasotti's lute. Ciconia is one of the most important composers of the Trecento. Characteristics of his music include rhythmic complexity and the use of multiple lyrics in one piece. Stylistically, sacred music does not differ fundamentally from his secular works. The concert was a fascinating survey of Ciconia's oeuvre, which was rightly received with great applause by the large audience. I look forward to the next appearance of La fonte musica.
Time to sum up and look back.
As I stated at the start of this review, I was rather sceptical about the this year's programme. The theme seemed to me more something to be discussed at a conference of scholars rather than be the subject of a festival. However, the way it was worked out resulted in a programme which offered much to enjoy and also - as each festival should - food for thought. The three concerts by the Huelgas Ensemble, which were a prelude to the festival, were quite interesting in this regard.
Let me start with the positive things. If one has read my reviews of the various concerts, one may have concluded that there were many of high quality. Overall, the level of the performances was very good, whether one likes the artistic decisions of the performers or not. Among the concerts that I have attended, the highlights are these:
- Música Temprana
- Profeti della Quinta (Rossi)
- Vox Luminis (German Baroque Requiem)
- Eva Saladin/Vera Schnider/Dirk Börner
- Ludus Instrumentalis
A festival is always a good opportunity to become acquainted with artists and ensembles one did not know before. My discoveries of this year's festival:
- Sophia Faltas
As far as performance practice is concerned, the concerts by the Huelgas Ensemble I just mentioned, and the performances of Mendelssohn and Brahms by Vox Luminis were particularly interesting and instructive, and may well offer new perspectives on the vocal music of the (late) 19th century and even the early 20th century (Reger). It would be nice if this kind of performances would have impact on the way this repertoire is approached beyond the world of early music.
It is exactly with regard to performance practice that some critical comments should be made. In addition to all the good things this festival has offered, I also saw confirmation of a tendency that I'm increasingly observing: ignoring the results of historical research. I already pointed out that the opening concert of Le Tempête has little to do with historical performance practice. I have not heard the performance of Monteverdi's Vespers by this ensemble, but according to the programme it was identical to the CD recording, which is highly debatable from a historical point of view, as I argued in my review. The director of the ensemble, Simon-Pierre Bestion, himself admits that his performance has nothing to do with historical performance practice. In my opinion, this means that he does not belong at the festival and certainly does not deserve the status of 'artist in residence'.
The performance of Purcell's Fairy Queen was also debatable. It is true that a performance in the style of the time is almost impossible. Then a concert performance, no matter how unsatisfactory, is still the best option. Modern dance, as in the performance directed by William Christie, deviates too far from what may be regarded as historically justified.
This has little to do with 'creativity'. Baroque music allows the interpreter a lot of freedom within the style of the time. It does not need to be stretched any further. It sometimes seems as if interpreters are not satisfied with what the composer has written and think they must correct it or add something to it. Do they really like the music they intend to perform? Wouldn't it be better for them to perform other music?
Nowadays it is no longer customary to talk about 'historical performance practice', but rather of 'historically informed performance practice'. But what is the point of being 'historically informed' if in actual performances one ignores the information one has at his disposal?
The real creativity in early music comes from those who make their own music according to historical examples, such as Eva Saladin does with her improvisations. Others use the instructions in books from around 1600 to make their own diminutions. That is a development to be welcomed rather than attempts to adapt music from the past to one's own taste.
Next year the festival's theme will be "Sevilla". That means that we are going to hear much music from Spain, apparently also from the baroque period. That is especially important as this era in Spanish music history is still severely underexposed in concerts and recordings. This year's festival already offered some concerts with Spanish music, which were good introductions to what awaits us next year. Música Temprana will be one of the 'artists in residence'. That is something I am looking forward to.
Johan van Veen (© 2023)
 Huelgas Ensemble/Paul Van Nevel
Festival prelude: Surprise marathon
August 25, Cathedral
 La Tempête/Simon-Pierre Bestion
August 25, TivoliVredenburg (large hall)
 Ensemble Castelkorn/Josef ák
Biber, Döbel, Schmelzer
August 26, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
 Skip Sempé, harpsichord, virginals
August 26, Lutheran Church
 Ensemble Lucidarium/Avery Gosfield
August 26, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
 Música Temprana/Adrián Rodríguez van der Spoel
"From Vergil to villancico"
August 26, TivoliVredenburg (large hall)
 Profeti della Quinta/Elam Rotem
August 26, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
 Sophia Faltas, mezzo-soprano; Arjan Verhage, lute
August 28, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
 Capella de la Torre/Katharina Bäuml
August 28, Jacobikerk
 Stile Antico
"L'homme armé: Palestrina"
August 28, Cathedral
 Collegium Vocale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe
August 28, TivoliVredenburg (large hall)
"La Guerra / La Guerre"
August 28, Pieterskerk
 Elisabeth Hetherington, soprano; Postscript
"Sublimely intimate: Arias for the living room"
August 29, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
 Benjamin Alard, harpsichord
"Le trésor des clavecinistes II"
August 29, Lutheran Church
 Officium Ensemble/Pedro Teixeira
"L'homme armé: Morales"
August 29, Cathedral
 Vox Luminis/Lionel Meunier
"A German Baroque Requiem"
August 29, TivoliVredenburg (large hall)
 Eva Saladin, violin; Vera Schnider, harp; Dirk Börner, harpsichord
Violin visions & improvisations"
August 30, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
 Léon Berben, harpsichord
"Le trésor des clavecinistes III"
August 30, Lutheran Church
 Cantar Lontano/Marco Mencoboni
"L'homme armé: Guerrero"
August 30, Cathedral
 Le Jardin des Voix, Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
Purcell: The Fairy Queen
August 30, TivoliVredenburg (large hall)
 Ludus Instrumentalis/Evgeny Sviridov
August 31, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
 Tatjana Vorobjova, harpsichord
"Le trésor des clavecinistes IV"
August 31, Lutheran Church
 La Fonte Musica/Michele Pasotti
August 31, Pieterskerk
 Seconda Prat!ca/Jonatan Alvarado
"L'homme armé: Peñalosa"
August 31, Cathedral
 Emma-Louise Roux, voice, lute
"Cantar al liuto, Chanter sur le luth"
August 31, TivoliVredenburg (Cloud Nine)
 Lucía Caihuela, mezzo-soprano; Aysha Wills, transverse flute; Artem Belogurov, harpsichord
Sept 1, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)
 The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
"Josquin marathon I: Canon"
Sept 1, Cathedral
 The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
"Josquin marathon II: Motif"
Sept 1, Cathedral
 Vox Luminis/Lionel Meunier
JS Bach, Brahms, Mendelssohn
Sept 2, TivoliVredenburg (large hall)
 Le Banquet Céleste/Damien Guillon
Monteverdi: L'incoronazione di Poppea
Sept 2, TivoliVredenburg (large hall)
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