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Concert reviews






Holland Festival Early Music Utrecht 2003

I: Philippus de Monte
[1] Concerto Italiano/Rinaldo Alessandrini: "The poetry of Guarini: from De Monte to Monteverdi"
[2] Cantus Cölln/Konrad Junghänel: "Il Pastor Fido"

II: Consort music
[3] Mezzaluna/Peter Van Heyghen: "Music at the Austrian-Habsburg courts at the time of Philippus de Monte"
[4] Orlando di Lasso Ensemble/Detlef Bratschke; The Sirius Viols/Hille Perl: "Draw on sweet night"
[5] Hille Perl, Friederike Heumann: "Why not here?"
[6] Ensemble Braccio/Jonathan Talbott, Tormod Dalen: "Außerlesene Paduanen, Galliarden..."

III: 300 Years St Petersburg
[7] Russian Patriarchate Choir/Anatoli Grindenko: "From the ecclesiastical repertoire of Peter the Great"
[8] A la Russe Ensemble: Johann Wilhelm Hässler
[9] Musica Petropolitana: Anton Ferdinand Titz
[10] Fabio Bonizzoni: Galuppi, Rutini, Geminiani, D Scarlatti
[11] Il Seminario Musicale/Gérard Lesne: Galuppi
[12] Kwartet André: "The clarinet in St Petersburg"

IV: "Sturm und Drang"
[13] Musica ad Rhenum/Jed Wentz: Quantz, FH Graf, CPhE Bach
[14] Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin: Beck, WF & CPhE Bach, JG Graun, WA Mozart
[15] Menno van Delft: WF Bach

V: "Romanticism"
[16] Orchestra of the 18th Century/Frans Brüggen: Schumann, Brahms
[17] Alexei Lubimov, Vera Beths, Claus Kanngiesser: Schumann
[18] Christoph & Stephan Genz, Eric Schneider: Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Schumann

VI: Other concerts
[19] Kris Verhelst: Frescobaldi, Merula, Picchi, Storace
[20] Kammerchor & Barockorchester Stuttgart/Frieder Bernius: Zelenka, Hasse
[21] Choir & Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Richard Egarr: Purcell, Dido and Aeneas
[22] Magdalena Kozená, Thierry Grégoire, Baroque Ensemble/Jory Vinikour


Heavy clouds were gathering over the Holland Festival Early Music Utrecht last year. It was in serious financial trouble, and without additional subsidy the festival of 2003 could have been the last. Fortunately there was good news: subsidies have been granted, and the festival can continue for the years to come.

The effects of the financial trouble could be experienced this year. The number of concerts has been reduced - which is not necessarily a bad thing. There was no programme book this year - that is a bad thing. There was some information about the themes of the festival and some programmes in the quarterly of the 'Organisatie Oude Muziek', which organises the festival. And at every concert programme sheets are available, but that is no compensation for the lack of a programme book. And the worst thing was definitely the programme paper which was published before the festival and which contained the order form. This should invite to order tickets and visit the festival. But I can't believe anybody will have been attracted by something printed on paper which looks like the kind of toilet paper which in the former East Germany was used for book printing. And the presentation of the whole thing was as ugly as I have ever seen.

The lunch time concerts were always free. They still were, but if one wanted to know the programme, one had to buy a programme sheet. That is not what I call 'free'.

I understand that the festival had to save money. But like the present Dutch government they are looking in the wrong direction. I know where they could have saved money: the kind of garbage which was programmed as the opening concert.
This is how the programme paper describes the event:
"Singing dancers, ambulatory singers. FOI [French for 'faith', JvV], the opening performance of this year's Early Music Festival, balances early opera with contemporary movement theatre. Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui joins forces with Dirk Snellings and his Capilla Flamenca in fourteenth-century Ars Nova combined with folk songs, occasionally from far-flung cultures, cast in a raw, poetic dance idiom. A colourful array of characters populates the stage, from a yogi without legs to a black American transvestite and an actor with Down's syndrome. In short, music and dance in manner of a Jeroen Bosch painting."
Like I said, the festival can continue in the near future thanks to additional subsidies. But that money should be spent worthily. A 'performance' like this is a waste of money. The connection to Jeroen Bosch is nothing but a pathetic attempt to justify the programming of an unhistorical and tasteless piece of trash.
Needless to say I decided to skip the 'performance'. When you sniff a rotten egg you don't need to eat it to be sure it's rotten.

As usual the festival has a number of themes. There were four this year:
- Philippus de Monte was the 'composer iin residence' - this year is the commemoration of his death in 1603
- consort music: music for recorders, trransverse flutes, viols and violins
- 300 Years St Petersburg - a number of concerts are co-productions with the Early music festival of St Petersburg
- 'Sturm und Drang': music from the periiod between JS Bach and WA Mozart

In addition some concerts were devoted to romantic music, especially by Schumann. And as usual there were some concerts which didn't belong to any theme.


I: Philippus de Monte

Philippus de Monte isn't an unknown quantity. Still, his music isn't often programmed, and if so it is mostly the masses and motets which are performed. Therefore the concert by the Concerto Italiano, directed by Rinaldo Alessandrini [1], was a unique opportunity to hear his secular music. It was a fascinating confrontation of settings of the same texts by De Monte and a composer of a younger generation: Claudio Monteverdi. All settings were published around the same time: between 1586 and 1605. But musically speaking they were poles apart. De Monte is very much in the tradition of the 16th century polyphony, the 'prima prattica'. Monteverdi, by contrast, represents the 'seconda prattica' and looks for the dramatic elements in the text and tries to translate them into music. The outcome is striking: Monteverdi's settings reflect the content of the poetry much more strongly than De Monte's. A contrast like this is interesting, but perhaps also a little unfair. De Monte's music tends to pale in comparison to Monteverdi's, but they are based on different stylistic views and therefore hardly comparable. In another context De Monte's madrigals could well stand out in comparison to those of others of his generation. The performance was excellent, both in De Monte and in Monteverdi. I wasn't very happy, though, with the harpsichord playing colla parte in some of De Monte's madrigals. A lute or a harp - also used - are less obtrusive and therefore preferable. And I still think that singing madrigals in a large auditorium (Muziekcentrum Vredenburg) is not such a good idea. Madrigals need a more intimate surrounding.

That was also the case in another concert which combined music by De Monte with madrigals by other composers. Cantus Cölln [2] presented madrigals on texts from Guarini's play 'Il Pastor Fido', published in 1590. According to the programme notes more than 550 pieces on texts from this play are extant, composed by more than 125 composers between 1591 and 1626. It was a very nice idea to select the madrigals according to the development of the story of the play. It started with Heinrich Schütz' 'O primavera' and ended with his 'Selve beate'. In between madrigals by De Monte, Giovanelli, Pallavicino. Marenzio, Da Gagliano, Melli, Gastoldi, Monteverdi, Bernardi and d'India told the two plots of the play: the story about Silvio, Amarilli and Mirtillo, and the story of Silvio and Dorinda. Like in the concert by Concerto Italiano both 'prima' and 'seconda prattica' were represented. The performance was very good, but didn't really sparkle. There was just a little lack of fire and passion. One of the best items was certainly Sigismondo d'India's madrigal in 5 parts, Se tu, Silvio crudel. But again, this concert should have taken place in a more intimate venue.


II: Consort music

One of the nice things about this festival has always been that some concerts link two themes together. That was the case with the performance of a new ensemble, Mezzaluna, directed by Peter Van Heyghen [3]. It was devoted to music for recorder consort at the Austrian-Habsburg courts at the time of Philippus de Monte. From the sources one may conclude that the repertoire of the recorder consort mainly consisted of vocal works, in particular motets and chansons. The number of voices reflected the social status of the surroundings in which music was performed. Four voices was common among the bourgeoisie, five in aristocratic circles and six was restricted to the highest circles. Mezzaluna gave a very interesting overview of the repertoire, mainly consisting of vocal pieces by composers like De Monte, Utendal, Regnart, Handl and lesser known masters like Johannes de Cleve and Antoine de la Court. The concert could be described as a little academic, in that there was perhaps too little variation. Some original instrumental compositions were included, like ricercares by Padovano and Luython and some dances by Mainerio. The performance of these dances wasn't as lively as it should have been - in fact, one would hardly recognize them as dances. But all players were extremely competent and the ensemble playing was impeccable. And the sound of the renaissance recorders - from descant to great bass -, all built by Adrian Brown, was exquisite.

This concert took place in connection to the International Renaissance Recorder and Flute Consort Symposium which was held during the first three days of the festival. The title of the symposium, 'Musique de Joy', reflects the main goal of consort music: entertainment. There were not only concerts with music for flute or recorder consort, but also with consort music for viols - sometimes in combination with voices - and violins.

The consort of viols is a typically English genre. No wonder that one of the concerts was devoted to one of England's most intriguing and original composers of consort music: William Lawes. His Consort sets in 6 parts were played by Phantasm. I don't like ensembles which are coming to play their CD's. I had just heard and reviewed their recent recording of these same pieces, so I didn't see any reason to attend their concert.

The German Orlando di Lasso Ensemble (directed by Detlef Bratschke) and The Sirius Viols (directed by Hille Perl) [4] with English music for voices and viols - that was something I was looking forward to. Although Germans playing English music makes me just as suspicious as English musicians performing German music, this ensemble has made some excellent recordings. I was pleasantly surprised: they did pretty well, even though the English texts were not always understandable, and if they were they did sound allright but not quite idiomatic. They ended with Richard Dering's The Country Cries - a nonsense text on music, which was sung, played and even 'acted' quite well. Still I believe they would have been well advised not to perform that kind of music. That is something they better leave to the British who can give wonderful tongue-in-cheek performances of that kind of stuff. Some solos were sung by the soprano Dorothee Mields, who has a wonderful voice, which reminds me a little of Suzie LeBlanc. The viols were playing great in some works by William Lawes and John Dowland and joining the voices in works by Tomkins, Wilbye, Dowland, Farmer, Morley, Weelkes and Nicholson. The best part of the concert were the more serious works, like Tomkins' Music divine and Dowland's Sorrow, come.

Hille Perl was joined by Friederike Heumann [5] in a concert with music for 'lyra viols'. As the programme notes said: "The term 'lyra viol' does not necessarily refer to a different instrument than the ordinary viol, but it is used for a specific way of playing: 'lyra-way', as it is called on various title pages of seventeenth-century manuscripts. The most important characteristics of lyra viol music are the playing of chords, polyphony for a continually changing number of parts, the plucking of the strings and a great number of tunings of the instrument ('scordatura')." It was a wonderful experience to listen to music by Thomas Ford, John Jenkins and Alfonso Ferrabosco played this way. Although only two instruments were involved, often one got the idea a whole consort of viols was playing. Especially intriguing was the Suite in D by the Bohemian born composer Gottfried Finger. In this suite there were strong reminiscences of the music by Biber, and sometimes it made one think of the viol parts in German sacred concertos of the 17th century. That was in particular the case in the chaconne which concluded the suite. This was one of the best concerts of the whole festival.

Far less familiar is the 'consort of violins'. The Ensemble Braccio [6] presented a programme of music which builded the repertoire of the Hamburg Ratsmusik. This was one of the top class ensembles in 17th century Germany, which - in contrast to the town ensembles of the time (like 'London Waits' or the 'Concerto Palatino' in Bologna and the Stadtpfeifer in many German cities) - consisted of strings instead of wind instruments. The ensemble played this repertoire on renaissance violins: descant, treble, tenor and bass violin. The programme demonstrated that the Ratsmusik not only played German music - by composers like Johann Schop and Johann Vierdanck - but also pieces by foreigners like Dowland, Thomas Simpson and William Brade. It was a most interesting concert which was played very well. One could ask, though, whether music from the 1630's and 1640's isn't a little too late to play on renaissance instruments. Wouldn't baroque violins be more appropriate?


III: 300 Years St Petersburg

During the 17th and 18th centuries Russian culture was increasingly influenced by the West. Composers from all over Europe were invited to the court at St Petersburg. The Western influence didn't leave the Russian Orthodox Church unaffected. Polyphony was introduced at the end of the 15th century, but it wasn't until the 17th century that Western influence started to change Russian liturgical music fundamentally. The first part of the concert by the Russian Patriarchate Choir, directed by Anatoli Grindenko [7], was devoted to the so-called partesny style: 'singing in parts', culminating in a setting of the Te Deum by Dmitri Bortnianski (1751 - 1825), which is hardly recognizable as Russian Orthodox church music, as it is strongly influenced by the Italian operatic style. It marked the end of the 'authentic' liturgical chant in Russia.
The second part contained of those 'authentic' liturgical chants, in two styles. The znamenny-style has a Byzantine flavour but also shows some parallels with the Notre-Dame school. In this case the voice which holds the piece together isn't the 'tenor' as in the organa but the bass. Other chants were in the strotsjnoje style. The programme notes stated: "The latter [the strotsjnoje style, JvV], which may sound very dissonant to our ears, is closely related to the Old Russian folk style that can still be heard today in the south of Russia". That is no exaggeration: I was surprised how strongly dissonant these chants were. One got the idea of listening to contemporary choral works. There is one important difference, though: these chants are only dissonant to our ears and are not meant to unsettle the listener, which modern choral works by Western composers often seem to aim at. And the singing of the Russian Patriarchate Choir was brilliant and superior as ever. It is incredible how little the conductor has to do to keep the choir going: all singers know exactly what they are doing, their voices blend perfectly and the handling of dynamics is very impressive. This kind of music is part of their lives and it showed. I have heard this choir quite often, both live and on CD, and I have never been disappointed: the musical quality and the high amount of authenticity and sincerity are quite unique.

As said before, many European composers were invited to come to St Petersburg or just travelled to Russia on their own initiative. One of them was Johann Wilhelm Hässler (1747 - 1822), a succesful keyboard player and composer, although Mozart didn't hold him in high esteem. His judgement was unjustified, though, as the A la Russe Ensemble [8] - Olga Martinova (fortepiano), Dmitri Sinkovski (violin), Pavel Serbin (cello) - showed in its concert, devoted to three pieces for keyboard, violin and cello by Hässler. His music is a representative of the Sturm-und-Drang style - again a connection to another theme of the festival. In particular the long Caprice et Chanson Russe variée is a very remarkable piece, which begins with a capriccio written in a very free improvisatory style, seemingly without any direction or pattern. During the series of variations there are several passages for keyboard solo, and surprisingly the work ends with an old-fashioned fugue. The two Sonatas with which the concert started and ended also contained some surprises. This is certainly music to be played more frequently. The performance was excellent throughout - all striking aspects of this music were exploited to their full extent by three outstanding musicians.

Another surprise was presented in a luch time concert by the well-known Russian ensemble Musica Petropolitana [9]: Andrei Reshetin and Maria Krestinskaya (violin), Sergei Filchenko and Rustic Pozymski (viola), Dmitri Sokolov (cello) and Irina Shneyerova (harpsichord). Music by Anton Ferdinand Titz - a German composer who went to St Petersburg at the invitation of a Russian diplomat who met him at the court of Prince Lobkowitz in Vienna. The ensemble presented some chamber music works: a string quintet with divertimento character, a quite virtuoso set of variations for two violins on a theme from Paisiello's opera Nina, a string quartet which shows some influences of Haydn, and a most remarkable, quite 'modern' sonata for keyboard with violin. Again we heard an excellent performance. They only regret was that in the Sonata for keyboard and violin in c minor a harpsichord was used. If a fortepiano had been used the avant garde aspects of this work would have become even more striking.

The Italian harpsichordist Fabio Bonizzoni [10] devoted his recital to Italian keyboard players and composers who spent time in St Petersburg: Baldassare Galuppi and Giovanni Marco Rutini. But for reasons which I can't figure out he added works by Francesco Geminiani and Domenico Scarlatti, who have never been there. Bonizzoni played well, but wasn't always able to convince me that the pieces he had programmed are high quality works.

Galuppi was also the key figure in the concert by Il Seminario Musicale, directed by Gérard Lesne [11]. Two sacred works were performed: Dixit Dominus and Confitebor tibi Domine. The connection with St Petersburg was merely the fact that Galuppi has played an important role in performances of Italian operas there, but these sacred works have nothing to do with his Russian years at all. But these are very good compositions, which were sung and played very well. The main parts were sung by Gérard Lesne himself and the excellent soprano Soledad Cardoso, who in her arias showed what it means to differentiate between 'good' and 'bad' notes - unlike a more famous colleague, whom I shall deal with later.

Lastly I would like to mention a very interesting lunchtime concert, given by the Kwartet André [12] - Nicole van Bruggen-Harris (classical clarinet), Sophie Gent (violin), Simon Murphy (viola), Tom Pitt (cello) -, devoted to chamber music with clarinet, written by composers associated with St Petersburg: Cesare Pugni, Iwan Müller and Anton Franz Josef Eberl.


IV: "Sturm und Drang"

It should have happened long before, but: better late than never. In all books on music history one can read what important musical developments have taken place in the time between Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. But over the years only a figure like Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel has been paid attention to. There are many important composers from his time to discover. It lasted until 2003 before that period was the subject of a number of concerts. It was called Sturm und Drang, but Empfindsamkeit or Galanterie would have been appropriate too. These three styles are not separate compartments: often they appear in one and the same work.

One of the most exciting concerts was given by Musica ad Rhenum, directed by Jed Wentz [13], who also played the solo parts in two flute concertos by Johann Joachim Quantz and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach respectively. In an energetic performance like here all of a sudden Quantz is anything but a decent, middle-of-the-road composer. His Concerto in D (QWV 5,51) was very surprising because of a long slow solo section within the first part with the indication 'allegro di molto'. The Empfindsamkeit is present in the middle movement (un poco andante e cantabile), the galant style in the concluding 'allegro'. Empfindsamkeit and Sturm und Drang are also represented by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's Flute concerto in d minor (Wq 22). The playing of both fast movements was brilliant and thrilling, and a clear demonstration of the modern character of Carl Philipp Emanuel's music. In between a quartet for flute, violin, viola and cello in e minor by Friedrich Hartmann Graf was played, a work with large contrasts and a technically demanding part for the transverse flute.

The Akademie für Alte Musik [14] also made a great impression with a programme of orchestral music of composers from this period. The first work was the Symphony in g minor from the opus 3 by Franz Ignaz Beck, who in his time was held in high regard and only recently has started to be rediscovered. Rightly so, as this fine symphony showed, in which the 'andante con poco adagio' and the concluding 'presto' were particularly impressive. Around the middle of the 18th century the viola da gamba became an old-fashioned instrument. Therefore one wouldn't expect a representative of the 'modern' style like Johann Gotlieb Graun to compose music for the instrument, and certainly not a solo concerto. But he did, and his Concerto in G was played with Jan Freiheit as the soloist. It is a fine work in which the soloist has every opportunity to shine, even in cadenzas in the first two movements. The performance by Jan Freiheit and the orchestra was impeccable. There is certainly every reason to perform more music by Graun, one of the ambitions of the orchestra as one of it's leaders, Stephan Mai, said in an interview. After the interval symphonies by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Mozart were played.

During the concert the Adagio and fugue in d minor (F 65) by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was also performed. This eldest son of Johann Sebastian was a strange fellow, socially maladjusted, but seemingly also musically indecisive. This piece is still very baroque in structure and character. A recital on clavichord by Menno van Delft [15] was an ample demonstration of Wilhelm Friedemann's wavering between 'old' and 'new'. Three from the Eight Fugues of 1778 belong to the 'old' style, the Polonaises, which brought the composer considerable fame in his own time, to the empfindsamer Stil, just like the Fantasia in e minor (F 21) with which the concert started. Some of Wilhelm Friedemann's keyboard works are technically demanding reflecting his capabilities as keyboard player. Menno van Delft gave an inspired performance, something he seems to be more capable of on the clavichord than on the harpsichord.


V: Romanticism

Not an official theme, but nevertheless thematically linked were three concerts, with orchestral music, chamber music and songs from the 19th century. They all focussed on the music of Robert Schumann.These concerts demonstrated once again how much is gained when this music of the romantic period is played on period instruments, with the appropriate technique.

The first concert was given by the Orchestra of the 18th Century, conducted by Frans Brüggen [16]. The most striking aspect was the difference in balance between the string and wind sections, in comparison to modern symphony orchestras. The wind instruments are much more prominent here, which fundamentally changes the sound of the orchestra and the impression of the music. All kinds of details are revealed which otherwise are overpowered by a thick string sound.
In the first part two works by Robert Schumann were played: the Manfred Overture and the Fourth Symphony. Both were given fine performances, even though in some passages of the first movement and the scherzo could have been played a little more 'lebhaft'.
The most exciting part of the concert took place after the interval, when Thomas Zehetmair - who in the first half acted as leader of the orchestra - played the solo part in the Violin Concerto by Brahms. He not only had the right tool - a violin with gut strings - but also used relatively little vibrato, in accordance with the view of Joseph Joachim, the violin virtuoso for whom Brahms composed the concerto, that vibrato should only be used as an ornament. Some people believe this results in a meagre, colourless and lifeless tone. Nothing like. On the contrary, Zehetmair's playing was very warm, colourful and full of life. In particular his phrasing and articulation and the dynamic differentiation revealed the connection of Brahms' concerto with the German rhetorical tradition. Zehetmair made his violin not only sing, but also speak. It was a very eloquent discourse.

It is one thing to use a period instrument, but quite another to play it with the appropriate technique. Too much vibrato was the main negative aspect of the concert with chamber music by Schumann, played by Alexei Lubimov, Vera Beths and Claus Kanngiesser [17]. The vibrato was the reason I didn't like Vera Beths' interpretation of the Sonata for pianoforte and violin no 1, op. 105. Due to illness Anner Bijlsma couldn't play; he was replaced by the German cellist Claus Kanngiesser. As far as I know he doesn't have any credentials regarding playing on period instruments. The concert made clear it isn't enough just to put gut strings on the cello. The whole approach of a HIP performance is different. In the Fantasiestücke for pianoforte and cello op. 73 and the Piano trio no 3, op. 110 he used even more vibrato than Vera Beths. In the end the performance was more traditional than 'historically informed'.

The fact that using a period instrument doesn't necessarily make a performance 'historically informed' was also demonstrated in a concert with songs and duets by Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and Schumann, in which the brothers Christoph and Stephan Genz - tenor and baritone respectively - were accompanied by Eric Schneider on a Streicher fortepiano of 1847 [18]. If a pianist isn't experienced in playing historical instruments - as Eric Schneider audibly isn't - the use of the fortepiano is merely a curiosity for the sake of creating the right atmosphere. Only an experienced fortepiano player is able to exploit the instrument's capabilities to the advantage of a convincing interpretation.
Most of the duets of both composers are light-hearted, and they were sung that way by the singers. If they had only sung that kind of things the vocal part of the concert would have been great. But there were also more serious solo songs, and there they - in particular Christoph Genz - left something to be desired. A song like Mendelssohn's Auf Flügeln des Gesanges was a little too superficial to be satisfying.


VI: Other concerts

There were some concerts which didn't belong to any theme.
The Belgian harpsichordist Kris Verhelst [19] played a programme with music by Italian composers of the first half of the 17th century, a period in which a large amount of intriguing music was composed. Frescobaldi was represented, alongside Giovanni Picchi, Tarquinio Merula and Bernardo Storace. Right at the start - in the Toccata prima (1627) by Frescobaldi - it was clear that Ms Verhelst has a good sense of the theatrical character of this music. She never used the often technically demanding pieces to show off. And the way she played the closing chords of a piece was never predictable, like in Storace's famous Ciaccona which ended the concert. Very few harpsichordists can resist the temptation to end the piece with a big thump on the keyboard. But it was with a beautifully broken chord that Kris Verhelst ended a most rewarding and memorable performance.

The festival is supported by 'Friends of the Festival'. For them every year a concert is given on Monday night, with a programme which is usually a little longer than other concerts. This year the Stuttgart Chamber Choir and Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Frieder Bernius [20], performed two works by composers who worked at the court in Dresden: Jan Dismas Zelenka and Johann Adolf Hasse. The first piece was the Missa Dei Filii by Zelenka. To me Zelenka is one of the most fascinating composers of the baroque. He was much admired by Johann Sebastian Bach and is sometimes rightly called the 'Catholic Bach'. One of the features Zelenka and Bach share is their use of polyphony, which is so admirable demonstrated in the Mass, which was composed between 1740 and 1745, the year of Zelenka's death. Unfortunately the Mass is incomplete: only Kyrie and Gloria have been finished. This is a brilliant work with a profound Kyrie in which the 'Christe eleison' is set for soprano solo - beautifully sung by Mechthild Bach - and a jubilant Gloria, in which "Laudamus te" is repeated twice, the second surprisingly at the very end, as part of the fugue on the words "cum Sancto Spiritu". Soloists, choir and orchestra gave a very inspired performance. The second work was Johann Adolf Hasse's oratorio La Conversione Di Sant'Agostino. The story is about the conversion to the Christian faith of St Augustine and based on his Confessiones. The libretto was written by the Elector Maria Antonia Walpurgis von Sachsen and adapted by the famous poet Pietro Metastasio. It is a quite convincing account of the battle within the heart and mind of St Augustine and the attempts of his father and mother, his brother and a friend to help him to find his way to the true faith. But musically it is a fine work too, and therefore it was disappointing that the recitatives were heavily cut. It was even more regrettable, since the performance was doing full justice to the score. Generally the soloists - Mechthild Bach (soprano), Daniel Taylor and Nicholas Hariades (alto), Christoph Genz (tenor) and Sebastian Noack (bass) - were singing quite well, although Hariades was a little overpowered by the orchestra. Hopefully this work will be performed in its entirety in an equally good interpretation as the one by Frieder Bernius with his excellent choir and orchestra.

The harpsichordist Richard Egarr was directing Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a performance of Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas [21]. The performance certainly had its merits but on the whole failed to hold my interest. From a stylistic point of view several aspects were questionable. The vibrato of Sarah Connolly (Dido) and Maarten Koningsberger (Aeneas) was irritating, as were the improvisations on the theorbo - the reasoning of which escapes me - by William Carter, in particular since they took place at very strange moments. And why was the chorus of the Sorcerer and his Enchantresses ("Then since our Charmes have sped") at the end of Act 2 omitted? Basically it was a forgettable performance.

Music by Handel, Vivaldi and Monteverdi was performed by Magdalena Kozená and Thierry Grégoire, with a baroque ensemble, directed from the harpsichord and organ by Jory Vinikour [22]. This was definitely the worst concert I have heard during this festival. It takes less time to describe what was right than to spell out what was wrong.
To begin with: the voices of Kozená and Grégoire don't match. Kozená has a much louder voice and a stronger low register than Grégoire. The result was that in the duets by Handel (Tanti strali and Langue, geme) Grégoire was completely overpowered.
Kozená sings with quite a lot of vibrato, whereas Grégoire hardly uses any. This is very inconsistent. The use of vibrato is an artistic choice, not something you have or haven't. If one singer chooses to sing with and the other to sing without vibrato the result is the same as when a two violinists choose different pitches.
The solo pieces sung by Grégoire - Handel's cantata Mi palpita il cor and Vivaldi's cantata Cessate, omai cessate - could have been about almost anything. There was no expression of the text whatsoever, and the articulation was pretty bad. His singing was bland and lifeless most of the time.
There was no lack of expression in Magdalena Kozená's singing, for example in Handel's cantata La Lucrezia. Unfortunately she seems to think that expression is achieved by screaming as loudly as possible.
Both singers seem not to know that recitatives are stories which should be told, in a rhythmically free tempo based on the text, and that they should be spoken rather than sung, with natural accents.
The singers also seem to aim at delivering all notes with equal emphasis, regardless of their relative (un)importance, and ignoring the fundamental feature of all baroque music: the difference between 'good notes' - which should be stressed - and 'bad' notes.
In the light of all this the fact that the instrumental ensemble was pretty colourless doesn't matter that much, nor the questionable use of the organ for the basso continuo.

The large majority of the audience seemed to be very excited about the whole thing. I am not surprised, considering the talk by Richard Egarr before the start of his performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.

Since this opera is rather short he thought it to be a good idea to talk about aspects of the performance before the interval. With the help of three CD recordings he tried to argue that there is no such a thing as a good or bad interpretation: every interpretation is right as long as it is done with good intentions.
This is a view which is typical for so-called postmodernism. This can be described as a general aversion for 'concepts', 'grand ideas' or ideologies. It emphasises that everything is subjective and that there is no absolute truth and therefore nothing is 'good' or 'bad' per se. Logically it means that there is no reason to turn down performances of baroque music on instruments invented at a later date nor the (ab)use of compositions of the past for a contemporary political or social agenda.
Postmodernist claptrap like the talk by Richard Egarr may go down very well with an audience infected by the postmodernist virus, but basically it is the kiss of death for the whole historical performance practice and consequentially for the festival. The Holland Festival Early Music may survive financially, but will it survive artistically? If it falls into the trap of the postmodernist ideology that is very doubtful.


Johan van Veen (© 2003)

Relevant links:

Holland Festival Early Music Utrecht 2003


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