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Concert reviews

Holland Festival Early Music 2002

Part One   Part Two   Part Three

Part One

"Waldesnacht": Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven, Sor, Reicha
Karin van der Poel, mezzosoprano; Christoph Genz, tenor; Netherlands Chamber Choir/Marcus Creed; Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepiano; David Parsons, guitar; Teunis van der Zwart, Erwin Wieringa, Ulrich Hübner, Renée Allen, natural horn; Andreas Ladwig, recitation
"Salon Leipzig": Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Clara Schumann-Wieck, Robert Schumann
Anne Cambier, soprano; Tröndlin-Trio: Jan Vermeulen, fortepiano; Peter Despiegelaere, violin; Karel Steylaerts, cello
"Salon Utrecht": Van Bree, JA & GJ van Eijken, Verhulst, Oberstadt, Witte
Nico van der Meel, tenor; Wyneke Jordans, Leo van Doeselaar, fortepiano
"Virtuoso Viennese Divertimentos": Leopold Mozart, Michael Haydn, Krommer
New Dutch Academy Chamber Soloists/Simon Murphy
"CPhE Bach: 24 Pièces Caractéristiques"
Tom Beghin, fortepiano
"Vespers from Faenza": plainchant, anon, Ciconia, Zacara de Teramo
Mala Punica/Pedro Memelsdorf

This year's Holland Festival Early Music Utrecht has started Friday, August 23. A number of concerts at the start were devoted to music of the early 19th century. An important part of early 19th century music life was taking place in the musical salons. A number of concerts gave an impression of the kind of music which was performed in these salons.
As a form of introduction the opening concert presented works on the theme of the 'woods by night', a popular romantic subject. This shouldn't be taken too literally, then although all the vocal works had to do with the 'night', 'woods' did appear only in some of them. Choral works and solo songs, mainly by Schubert, were mixed with instrumental pieces, played on fortepiano and guitar, and there were also some pieces for horns.
An attempt was made to create the appropriate atmosphere by staging and lightning. Personally I could have done without that. It is impossible to create the atmosphere of a romantic musical salon in the large auditorium of a modern concert hall anyway. The atmosphere should come from the music itself. And that was the problem. Most music was very fine, in particular the choral works by Schubert, very well sung by the Netherlands Chamber Choir, most of them by the men only. But the German tenor Christoph Genz was disappointing in the solo songs, among them such gems as Der Einsame and Nachtstück. He certainly has a very fine voice, but his interpretation lacked expression and was too much down to earth. His partner at the fortepiano, Kristian Bezuidenhout, didn't help by playing pretty fast most of the time and not using the appropriate amount of rubato. (His accompaniment of some choral works was a lot better.) He also played the 'adagio sostenuto' from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata very expressively, but perhaps too 'romantic'. And does Beethoven belong in a programma of romantic music? After all, the title 'Moonlight' is not by Beethoven himself, but invented by a romantic poet.
The four players of the natural horn did a great job in accompanying the choir in Nachtgesang im Walde and three of them also gave a technically faultless performance of four pieces from Reicha's opus 82.
Annoying were the movements on the stage, when David Parsons played the softest instrument of the night, the guitar, in some pieces by Fernando Sor.
All in all, I had some mixed feelings after the concert.

Solo songs with pianoforte were also performed on Saturday by the Dutch tenor Nico van der Meel , colourfully accompanied by Leo van Doeselaar and Wyneke Jordans respectively on fortepiano, who also contributed some quatre-mains pieces. All the works were composed by Dutch composers of the 19th century. Most of the songs were on German texts, some on Dutch. This recital made abundantly clear that good music has been composed in the Netherlands between Sweelinck and Diepenbrock. All the songs in the programme, by Johannes Bernardus van Bree (1801-1857), Johannes Albert van Eijken and his younger brother Gerrit Jan (1823-1868 and 1832-1879 respectively) as well as Johannes Verhulst (1816-1891), are worth to be performed regularly. The interpration by Nico van der Meel couldn't be more different from the way Christoph Genz performed Schubert. In particular the detailed treatment of the texts made this performance very convincing.

Less satisfying was the concert devoted to the musical salons in Leipzig. It was given by the Belgian Tröndlin-Trio, named after the piano builder. One of his instruments is played in this trio by Jan Vermeulen. Movements from piano trios by Mendelssohn and both Clara and Robert Schumann, were mixed with songs by these composers. The main weakness in these performances was the pianist Jan Vermeulen. He is playing the fortepiano like a modern concert grand. The fortepiano is able to sound very subtle and colourful - that is one of its main strengths, in comparison with the modern piano. But there was no sign of it in this concert. Vermeulen's interpretation was cold and lifeless. The songs were interpreted by the soprano Anne Cambier. She has a nice voice, but not very characteristic, and her interpretations were a little bland. Only at the end she was able to strike some chords in songs by Robert Schumann.
In the 1750's Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach composed 24 little pieces for keyboard, which were published in several magazines. These pieces are smal portraits of people CPhE Bach knew, like the harpsichord pieces François Couperin wrote. Personalities characterised in this way are the likes of the poet Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim (La Gleim) and Georg Ernst Stahl, physician at the court of Frederick the Great (La Stahl). Others are characteristics of certain kinds of human characters, like a waverer ((L'Irresoluë) or a self-satisfied character (La Complaisante). All these pieces are very different as far as character and structure are concerned, and Tom Beghin, the Belgian fortepiano player, gave them the best possible performance on a beautiful fortepiano, a copy of an early Walter, according to Beghin probably very close to the Silbermann instruments CPhE Bach knew. Unfortunately very few people attendid this fine concert.

Very questionable was the concert by Mala Punica. It presented a programme of music from the ars subtilior (Johannes Ciconia and others), together with some instrumental works from the Faenza Codex., under the speculative title 'Vespers from Faenza'. But since when do vespers include parts of the mass? Here Kyrie, Gloria, Credo and Sanctus were performed - of them even twice, by different composers - followed by a Magnificat and Benedicamus Domino. Very confusing. Even more questionable was the use of instruments: organetto, vièles, recorder, trumpet and bells. The programme notes stated there was evidence that in the mass at that time - the end of the 14th century - during the mass vocal and instrumental music were alternating. But mixing instruments and voices, as happened here, is something quite different. I didn't see any reasons for this practice. And were instruments really used in this kind of combinations? Annoying were the frequent movements through the church. I couldn't see any reason for that either.
The performance was excellent from a technical point of view. But on the whole I had my doubts as far as the interpretation is concerned.

Part Two

"Lombards & Barbarians: War, music and liturgy in Monte Cassino and Southern Italy in the Middle Ages"
Ensemble Dialogos/Katarina Livljanic
Eton Choirbook: Davy, Stratford, Horwood
Cappella Pratensis/Rebecca Stewart
Schütz: St Luke Passion
Netherlands Bach Society/Jos van Veldhoven
"Baroque Music from the South American rain forest": anon, Brentner, Schmid, Zipoli
La Sfera Armoniosa/Mike Fentross
"Il Fasolo - Venice in the 17th Century: Venetian songs from carnival to opera"
Le Poème Harmonique/Vencent Dumestre
Carissimi: Oratorios
Les Paladins/Jérôme Corréas
Händel: L'Allegro ed il Penseroso
Angharad Gruffyd Jones, Katharine Fuge, Joanne Lunn, soprano; Margaret Cameron, mezzosoprano; James Gilchrist, tenor; Michael McCarthy, bass; The Monteverdi Choir, The English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner

Over the years there has been a lot of unknown repertoire, presented by musicians, who combine musicological research and musical performances. Examples are the ensembles Sequentia and Organum. This year another ensemble of that kind was making its debut: the Ensemble Dialogos, directed by its founder, Katarina Livljanic. She is a specialist in medieval liturgical music and works closely with Benjamin Bagby and his ensemble Sequentia. The programme during this festival concentrated on the contrast of two styles in the liturgical music in medieval southern Italy: the "Gregorian" and the "Beneventan" chant. A number of pieces were performed which come from the monastery of Monte Cassino. Hence the title of the concert, then the word 'barbarian' can be found often in the texts of these compositions. Some of the chants have been reconstructed. The performance by the men of the ensemble was intriguing and often exciting. Also the texts are remarkable. They are mostly from the Old Testament and therefore often quite dramatic, like those about Cain and Abel and about Abraham and Isaac. In a number of chants the words benedictus (blessed) and maledictus (cursed) are used quite often, reflecting the relationship between the monks of Monte Cassino and the outside world.

Also very early music, but of a different kind, was performed by the Cappella Pratensis, directed by Rebecca Stewart. Three compositions from the Eton Choirbook were performed, the largest of them the St Matthew Passion by Richard Davy, a work which unfortunately hasn't survived completely. The way the Cappella Pratensis performs this music is quite different from what we use to hear from British groups. They are much less dominated by the upper voices, not only because of a different way of singing, but also because of the lower pitch. The singing of the Cappella Pratensis is characterised by its flexibility and by the dramatic treatment of the text. In this case that was very striking in the performance of the turbae in the passion. Another feature of these performances is the English pronunciation of the text, something one has to get used to, but after a while it sounds very natural and logical.
The programme notes stated the Eton Chapel for which the music from the Eton Choirbook was composed contained 16 boys and 10 men. The Cappella Pratensis is not only a 'mixed' ensemble, but is also much smaller than this chapel. It would be nice if Ms Stewart - or someone working on the basis of her principles - would dare British cathedral choirs to perform this repertoire this way with the kind of voices it was written for and the number of singers of the original Eton Chapel.

Another Passion was performed by the Netherlands Bach Society, directed by Jos van Veldhoven, as part of the festival theme "Holy Week according to Schütz", in which all three Passions by the German baroque master were sung. This time the St Luke Passion was performed. The scoring is not that much different of Davy's Passion: it is for voices only without instruments. There are no chorales, no arias, no subjective elements at all. The Evangelist (a tenor) tells the story, the words of Jesus are sung by a bass, and the other small parts are sung by alto, tenor and bass soloists. Only the introduction - the 'title' of the work - and the conclusion ("Wer Gottes Marter in Ehren hat") as well as the turbae are sung by the 'choir'. In this performance Jos van Veldhoven had decided to insert traditional German hymns, sung unisono by sopranos and altos. I don't see any reason for it, although they were well chosen and performed. More problematic was the decision to perform the motet Quid commisisti (SWV 56-60), a motet in 5 sections from the Cantiones Sacrae, before, during and after the Passion. It is somewhat strange to cut a motet-cycle to pieces like that. And the differences in style between the Passion and the motet - which contains a basso-continuo-part - are such that this wasn't a very wise decision.
No complaints, though, about the performance. The 'leading' soloists - Mattijs van der Woerd (Evangelist) and Henk Neven (Jesus) were doing a good job, and so were the members of the choir who sang the smaller solo parts. The concert made evident once again that it is quite possible to write very expressive music with limited means. It was a convincing argument for a more frequent performance of Schütz' Passions.

One of this year's themes was called "Jesuits Inc.", and meant to show the influence of the Jesuits on composing and music making in the 17th and 18th centuries. One of the regions where they were very active was Latin America: they brought Western civilization to that region. Some European composers went to Latin America themselves, like Domenico Zipoli. And the Jesuits, coming from all parts of Europe, took the music they knew with them. Therefore the concert by the ensemble La Sfera Armoniosa contained a work by the Bohemian composer Johann Joseph Ignaz Brentner, a contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach. But other works have been composed in the region itself. Since many of these pieces are anonymous, it is not known whether they have been composed by European immigrants, like Martin Schmid - a non-professional composer, also represented in the programme - or by native composers. The music in the concert was varied as far as character is concerned: a simple Ave Maria by Martin Schmid, as well as a quite sophisticated cantata by an anonymous composer, In hoc mundo, impressively sung by the bass Huub Claessens. The other soloists - Xenia Meijer (soprano), Dorien Lievens (contralto), Furio Zanasi and Adriàn van der Spoel (tenor) - were also very convincing. The instrumentalists were making a good impression as well, not the least in two improvisations, which were very exciting, without putting on a show to make themselves looking good. But Mike Fentross and his ensemble have shown on other occasions that they are sincere musicians.

That characterisation also applies to the French ensemble Le Poème Harmonique, which was the discovery of last year's festival. This year they were performing music written as part of the Venetian carnival. It was called "Il Fasolo", after the name of a composer who apparently wrote a number of pieces, but whose identity is still unclear. It was common practice that pieces for the carnival were written under a pen name. Those who were expecting 'side-splitters' were disappointed or pleasantly surprised. Some of the pieces were closely related to the commedia dell'arte, but there were also very moving pieces, like the long solo in the first part, Chi non sà come Amor, a heart-breaking lament, sung by the soprano Claire Lefilliâtre. The ensemble presented the music in the programme with good taste, using simple but effective gestures to make clear what the music was about.

One of the most important Italian composers of the 17th century was Giacomo Carissimi, who was maestro di capella at the Collegio Germanico, the German Jesuit's college in Rome. He is mainly known for his oratorios, although these are too seldom performed. The concert, given by the ensemble Les Paladins, showed how unjustified this neglect is. Only the last piece, the Historia di Jephte, is performed from time to time. These oratorios are evidence of the fact that good composers know how to write expressive music with very limited means: in this case 6 singers, 2 violins and some basso continuo instruments. It seems that Carissimi, like other Italian composers, loved to exploit the sadness in compositions, like here the Historia di Jephte, to the limit, as is demonstrated by the almost endless repetition of "lamentamini" at the end. Apart from this oratorio there were two others on Latin texts, also mostly pretty sad: Historia di Job and Cain, as well as L'Oratorio della Santissima Vergine, the only piece on an Italian text. The performance was generally good, although the soprano Monique Zanetti used too much vibrato, which was unpleasant in the ensembles as well as in her performance of the part of Filia - Jephta's daughter - in Historia di Jephta. In contrast I was especially impressed by the soprano Raphaëlle Kennedy and the very expressive bass Renaud Delaigue.

To a certain extent one could consider Händel as an Italian composer as well. Certainly his style is Italian in many ways. John Eliot Gardiner was at the festival for the first time in its history, and gave a performance of the oratorio L'Allegro ed il Penseroso, in the form in which Händel performed it himself at the end of his life, without the third part, Il Moderato. I was pretty sceptic about the performance, not because of the music - which is great - but because of Gardiner. I am not always positive about his recordings of Händel's vocal works, his choice of soloists or the sound of his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. And the tickets were a lot more expensive than usual in this festival.
But fortunately the performance was excellent in most respects. The orchestra played well, but could have been a little larger, producing a somewhat stronger sound. Some unnamed players should be mentioned: the flautist, who played the solo in "Sweet bird", and the players of the natural horn and natural trumpets. The choir was also making a good impression and so were most of the soloists. Some of them - in particular the mezzosoprano Margaret Cameron and the bass Michael McCarthy - didn't have that much to do, in contrast to the three sopranos and the tenor James Gilchrist, who sang most of the arias - and there are a lot of them in this work, the majority for soprano. Since there was no announcement in the programme notes about which soprano was singing what, I can't give a specific assessment of the respective performances of Katharine Fuge, Angharad Gruffyd Jones and Joanne Lunn. Only one of them was a little disappointing because of using too much vibrato. She also sang "Sweet bird", which would have been better if one of the others would have sung it. On the whole, though, it was a memorable performance.

Part Three

"Music for the Jesuits in Eastern Europe: Michna, Jacob, Bertali
Ensemble européen William Byrd/Graham O'Reilly
Schütz: St John Passion; Musicalische Exequien
Trinity Baroque/Julian Podger
Rameau: Platée
Machteld Baumans (Junon), Claron McFadden (La Folie, Thalie), Johannette Zomer (L'Amour, Clarine), soprano; Benoit Boutet (Mercure, Thespis), Harry Nicholl (Platée), tenor; Frans Fiselier (Chitron), Michael Hart-Davis (Momus), Jean-François Vinciguera (Jupiter, Un Satyre), bass; Nationale Reisopera; Onafhankelijk Toneel; Combattimento Consort Amsterdam/Jan-Willem de Vriend
De Victoria and contemporaries
Orchestra of the Renaissance/Richard Cheetham

At the end of the week there were again two concerts devoted to the theme "Jesuits Inc.". The first one was with music by the Bohemian composer Adam Michna, who studied music with the Jesuits in Prague, Graz and Vienna. The Jesuits later published his compositions. The Litaniae de SS. Nomine Jesu for 6 voices, strings and bc, two songs on Czech texts from Loutna Ceska for 4 voices, strings and bc as well as the Missa Sancti Wenceslai for two 6-part choirs with 2 trumpets, strings and bc were performed. I had already heard some music by Michna, which I liked. But this performance was a little disappointing, not only because it was played in the wrong venue - a church would have been more appropriate - but also because the interpretation was too bland, and the direction of Graham O'Reilly too strict. It was in the penitential psalm Miserere mei Deus by Michna's contemporary Wenceslaus Jacob in particular, that the shortcomings were evident: according to the programme notes the dissonances in this work were shocking to the audience of his time. If they are I would like to hear them, but I hardly noticed them. The whole work passed by rather quickly, without really exploring its particularities.

Another concert in this series was devoted to music by Tomas Luis de Victoria, who had his first music lessons in the Jesuit College of San Gil. After his voice broke he was sent to the Collegio Germanico in Rome. In this programme, the Orchestra of the Renaissance, directed by Richard Cheetham, performed his Missa Gaudeamus, based on De Morales' motet Jubilate Deo omnis terra, performed before the mass with instruments only. Also on the programme other works by De Victoria, among them two double-choir motets (Salve Regina and Super flumina Babylonis) and a rather intimate setting of Nigra sum. And then there were pieces by Da Palestrina and the far lesser known Ruggiero Giovanelli. This concert was comparable to the previous one with music by Michna. Even more than that concert this one should have taken place in a church. The acoustics of the large concert hall of Vredenburg was too dry. This kind of music needs the reverberation of a large church. Apart from that the interpretation was too bland. The 12 (male) singers were all excellent, among them a fine sopranist, who had a great voice, but sounded too stressed. And although his performance of the upper parts in the polyphonic works was good most of the time, he didn't have the flexibility to interpret Giovanelli's motet Voce mea for two voices and bc convincingly. A piece, written in the seconda prattica-style like this demands different things from a singer than this sopranist was able to deliver. The instrumentalists, playing cornets, trombones, dulcian, shawm, harp, chitarrone and organ, were excellent. There certainly were things to enjoy, but on the whole the concert was a little disappointing.

The ensemble Trinity Baroque, directed by Julian Podger, gave a performance of the St John Passion by Heinrich Schütz, as part of the series devoted to his music for Holy Week, in which all of Schütz' Passions were performed. Since the St John Passion is shorter than the other two, Trinity Baroque added another work by Schütz, the famous Musicalische Exequien, a work written in a different style than the Passions, but just as expressive.
This concert convinced me once again that British ensembles should be forbidden to perform German baroque music. I am not suggesting that they don't understand the texts they are singing, but if you are not really familiar with the German language it is very difficult to perform Schütz' music stylistically correct. There were strange phrasings, but in particular the continuous legato singing was very annoying. If there is a comma in the text, I want to hear it. The turbae sounded like English madrigals. The difference with the performance of the St Luke Passion by the Netherlands Bach Society a couple of days earlier couldn't have been greater. The Musicalische Exequien were not better. I haven't exactly timed the performance, but it looked like an attempt to establish a speed record. Too many details passed by unnoticed. On the whole it was a superficial performance.

One of the most controversial aspects of this year's festival was the use of 'modern' instruments. The opera Platée by Jean-Philippe Rameau was performed by the Combattimento Consort Amsterdam, directed by Jan-Willem de Vriend. There can be no doubts about the artistic qualities of this orchestra, which is very well known in the Netherlands and almost never disappoints. The main argument of its founder and director, Jan-Willem de Vriend, for using modern instruments, is that early instruments are not appropriate for the large concert halls in which most concerts take place in our time. In this case, though, it was decided that the wind instruments should be baroque, because of the low pitch. In my view this is an acknowledgement that modern instruments are not equipped to play baroque music. That aside, the orchestra played extremely well, at least as well as possible on modern instruments. But although performances on modern instruments can be great in German or Italian baroque and classical music, they are not satisfying in French music. In particular the colours, for which Rameau's music is so famous, can't be realised with modern instruments.
I could have accepted this, if the staging would have been good. But it wasn't. It was modern, as usual these days. Although I am fundamentally opposed to modern staging of baroque opera, I could eventually enjoy a modern staging, as long as it is done with good taste. Unfortunately, it wasn't. For instance, if La Folie has stolen Apollo's lyre, she appears on the stage in a white suit, like a 20th century rockstar, wearing a cowboy hat, with a large white guitar. If it rains, record-covers are thrown on the stage. The swamp which Platée is coming from, is a large frog with a golden ball. The ball opens, and out comes Platée. Something which looks like an ice-cream wagon is put on the stage and L'Amour is selling a spun sugar to a girl. After a while the cream cake on top of the wagon turns out to be a cloud. These are only some examples of the rubbish the audience is treated with. There was a lot of laughter from the audience, which is right, since Platée is in fact a 'comedy of manners'. But the audience wasn't laughing about the story in the first place, but about the scenic inventions. And that's wrong. Therefore the staging distracts from the story, which is a mortal sin. From this perspective this production is a complete failure. The singing wasn't bad, but not very good either. But what difference does that make, if the whole concept stinks?

Let me sum up. The programme director of the festival pretended to do "new" things. In some ways that was correct. The introduction of modern instruments in the festival is a change of policies, but not for the better, as the performance of Rameau's Platée shows. The programming of 19th century music isn't new at all. As long ago as 1985 a Schubertiade took place in the festival, and Geoffrey Douglas Madge played Liszt on a fortepiano.
But there are serious doubts about the quality of the concerts on this year's festival. Too many were disappointing. Sure, musicians can have an off-day, but when interpretations are bland and superficial, that's different. It seems that quite often ensembles are under-rehearsed, or haven't thought long and thoroughly enough about the interpretation. Perhaps too many musicians switch from one ensemble to the other, which doesn't allow them to really explore the music they are playing. The organisation should be more critical as far as the quality is concerned.
The festival should concentrate on 'new' interpretations of well known repertoire and on exploring new territories as far as the repertoire is concerned. Doing 'new' things is fine, as long as it is a step forward. The use of modern instruments in early music is a step backwards, and doesn't make sense.

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Johan van Veen (© 2002)

Concert reviews