musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

Holland Festival Early Music Utrecht 2004

Part One   Part Two   Part Three

Part One

Molière/Jean-Baptiste Lully: Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme
Actors: Olivier Martin, Monsieur Jourdain; Nicolas Vial, Madame Jourdain; Louise Moaty, Lucile; Benjamin Lazar, Cléonte, Maistre de Philosophie; Anne Guersande Ledoux, Dorimène; Lorenzo Charoy, Maistre d'Armes; Alexandra Rübner, Nicole, Maistre de Musique; Jean-Denis Monory, Covielle, Maistre Tailleur; Julien Lubek, Maistre à Dancer
Singers: Arnaud Marzorati, Claire Lefilliâtre, François-Nicolas Geslot, Serge Goubioud, LIsandro Nesis, Bernard Arrieta, Arnaud Richard
Dancers: Caroline Ducrest, Julien Lubek, Cécile Roussat, Flora Sans, Gudrun Skamletz, Akiko Veaux
Le Poème Harmonique, Musica Florea/Vicent Dumestre
director: Benjamin Lazar
"Corelli senza Corelli": Corelli/arr Tonelli, F Couperin
La Risonanza/Fabio Bonizzoni
Purcell: The Masque of Cupid and Bacchus; Galliard: Pan and Syrinx
Penni Clark, Pauline Graham, Nicola Wemyss, Johannette Zomer, soprano; Joost van der Linden, Richard Zook, tenor; Mitchell Sandler, baritone; Marc Panthus, bass; Vocal ensemble, Musica ad Rhenum/Jed Wentz
Charpentier: Méditations pour le Carême; Danielis: 3 motets
Ensemble Pierre Robert/Frédéric Desenclos

The aim of the Holland Festival Early Music has always been to present unusual repertoire and unusual interpretations. For a long time it was able to fulfill that ambition, but the last five years or so it seemed to have lost track of the original intentions. It attracted attention with performances one wouldn't expect at a festival whose artistic credo is the historical performance practice, like performances of Rameau's harpsichord music on a Steinway. And in recent years a lot of money has been spent on productions which had little to do with early music anyway, or were outright tasteless.

The programme of this year's festival looked quite promising. And the first days suggest those promises will be fulfilled. Unusual repertoire was performed by Musica ad Rhenum: a one-act opera by John Ernest Galliard, a composer which hardly anybody has ever heard of. An unusual interpretation was the performance of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme by Molière and Lully.

The ambition to present dramatic works in staged performances hasn't very often led to really convincing productions. Two years ago Rameau's Platée was presented in an awful and tasteless performance, where almost everything was wrong: modern instruments, unstylish singing, dancing and acting in contemporary fashion, and - worst of all - a lack of depth in interpretation.
This year's production of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme was different in every possible way. The text was spoken in 17th-century pronunciation, the actors made use of period acting habits and gestures, the staging was strongly orientated towards the baroque style and the singing and playing was as stylish as one could wish for.

The main argument in favour of a 'modernisation' of baroque operas is that a modern audience can't possibly understand all the references made by librettists and composers. I have always been convinced the advocates of this approach underestimate the present-day audiences and the eloquence of the writers and composers of the baroque. And the present performance of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme seems to prove it. No concessions were made in regard to the play as it was originally written by Molière: the whole text was presented, without any cuts. And although it is reasonable to assume not every reference made by Molière has been comprehended by the audience, it seemed most of his mockery of the society of his time was well understood. And although an audience in a music festival comes to listen to music, they didn't seem to have too much trouble to watch and hear a piece of theatre which consists of about 70 percent text without any music. And it is in particular in the last third of the play - in this performance after the interval - that the largest amount of music can be heard, so patience was needed.

The performance was a winner in every respect. The acting, dancing, singing and playing were all excellent.
At first sight the acting may seem rather static, in particular in regard to the habit of the protagonists to speak to the audience rather than to each other. But it didn't undermine the interaction between them in any way. And when there is real action it catches the attention, as in one of the funniest episodes of the play when the music master, the dancing master and the fencing master get involved in a heated debate about the value of their respective arts, only to unite against Monsieur Jourdain's philosophy teacher, when he shows his contempt to all three of them.

What makes this production particularly convincing is that it shows this play isn't just a ridiculisation of Monsieur Jourdain who tries to dress and behave like a nobleman. Through his eyes one sees the society in which he lives in a different light. Regularly one wonders who is making a fool of himself: Monsieur Jourdain or the kind of people whose ranks he desperately tries to join. Take for example the attempts by his philosophy teacher - marvellously played by the director, Benjamin Lazar - to enhance his knowledge. When he explains how the letters of the alphabet are formed by the mouth, Monsieur Jourdain is deeply impressed, and one laughs about his naivety. At the same time, though, the philosophy teacher makes a fool of himself, by presenting as science what every common human being already knows.
This way the play's depths are revealed: this isn't just a mockery of the common man trying to be a nobleman, it is also a mockery of the society of 17th-century France as a whole. At the end one wonders who comes off best: the would-be nobleman or the real ones.

This production has convinced me even more that this is the way to go as far as the performance of dramatic works of the 17th and 18th centuries is concerned. Concessions to the supposed 'taste of the modern audience' seems more a matter of laziness than anything else.
(More about Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme: Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme; The Bourgeois Nobleman)

The position of Jean-Baptiste Lully at the French court was such that Marc-Antoine Charpentier, one of the most talented composers of his time, didn't have much of a chance to compose any music for the theatre. Therefore the largest part of his output consists of religious music. One of the specimen is a series of Méditations pour le Carême, all circling around the Passion of Christ. The first meditations are on texts from the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, which are followed by fragments from the story of Jesus' Passion as told in the Gospels. These are followed by one of the Tenebrae responsories traditionally sung in the Holy Week, a fragment from the Stabat mater and a text about Mary Magdalene. These meditations are very expressive, and sometimes even dramatic, in particular when the events of Jesus' Passion are told, for example the betrayal by Judas. It shows the great dramatic talent of Charpentier, and one recognises the influence of Charpentiers teacher Giacomo Carissimi. The motets by Daniel Danielis (1635-1696), which portray in sometimes exalted images the blessings of the eucharist. The performance by the Ensemble Robert was excellent: Marcel Beekman (haute-contre), Robert Getchell (tenor) and Robbert Muuse (bass) have the appropriate voices to sing this kind of repertoire, with their clear and supple voices, blending very well, and using the reverberation of the church to marvellous effect.

"Corelli senza Corelli", or "Corelli without Corelli" was the intriguing title of a concert by the ensemble Ricordanza. Corelli was one of the most admired and most influential composers of his time, and even long after his death his music was still played and admired. His compositions were also often transcribed. This concert presented some of the most unusual transcriptions one can think of. During history vocal music has been adapted to be played by instruments. But instrumental music turned into vocal music is rather rare. But that is what Antonio Tonelli (1686 - 1765) did with Corelli's trio sonatas. He composed motets for two voices, two violins and bc, using movements from Corelli's Sonate da chiesa. He kept as many of Corelli's notes as possible, and added a number of parts of his own. As Tonelli was looking after a close relationship between text and music, he chose movements whose Affekt was suitable to the texts he was going to set to music. The result is very natural, and doesn't sound constructed in any way. The performance did put these arrangements in the best possible light, but unfortunately the effect was in many ways destroyed by the large reverberation of the Pieterskerk. This medieval church is very suitable to perform polyphony of the renaissance, but during this concert many details were lost. I don't think the people in the back rows will have heard a lot of the texts. This is a shame since the music was very well worth hearing, and the singing by Emanuela Galli (soprano) and Gabriella Martellacci (contralto) was impressive, as was the playing by the instrumentalists, which was also demonstrated in the performance of Couperin's Apothéose de Corelli, a tribute to the Italian master by a French composer, who - unlike the Italian-born Lully - was an advocate of the goûts réünis, the mixture of the French and the Italian style.

Another composer who practiced the goûts réünis was John Ernest Galliard, a German composer, born in Celle from French parents. He was a member of the court orchestra in Celle, known for its experience in the French style. He took lessons from Italian masters like Farinelli and Steffani in Hanover. As so many continental musicians and composers in the first half of the 18th century, he went to London in 1706, where he became acquainted with the English style, in particular Purcell's.
Jed Wentz presented his opera in one act Pan and Syrinx, which became quite a popular piece. One can understand why: the music by Galliard is very original and makes a strong impression. One wonders why this work hasn't been performed before, and why Galliard's music seems to have been neglected. The instrumental music, from the overture to the dances, is very impressive, and can easily compete with the best music by Galliard's contemporaries. The work also contains some beautiful arias, like Syrinx's "Free from Sorrow" and "Go, leave me, 'tis in vain". Noticeable are the horns in Diana's aria "Bid the tuneful Cornet sound" and the solo for the transverse flute in Syrinx's aria "How Sweet the warbling Linnet sings", which reminds of the famous aria "Sweet bird" from Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. The role of Syrinx was realised by Johannette Zomer, and she did that very well. Marc Panthus as Pan made less of an impression: his singing wasn't as powerful as one would expect from a character like Pan.
The work contains a very comic scene between Sylvan and a Nymph, sung and played quite well by Mitchell Sandler (baritone) and Richard Zook (tenor) respectively. Although it was a concert performance, there were some staged elements in it, but even without it this opera worked wonderfully well, and it is certainly a piece which is worth to be performed more often.
Considering the fact that Galliard during his time in England came into contact with Purcell's music, it was a good idea to start the night with the music Purcell composed as interlude to Shakespeare's play The History of Timon of Athens, called The Masque of Cupid and Bacchus. The best aspect of the performance were the instrumental pieces, played with verve and swinging rhythms. Far less satisfying were the vocal ensembles because of a lack of homogeneity within the ad hoc ensemble.

Part Two

Cavalieri (de'): Rappresentatione di Anima, et di Corpo
L'Arpeggiata/Christine Pluhar
"Frottole": Italian lute songs around 1600
Marco Beasley, voice; Accordone
Biber: Missa Christi resurgentis; Sonatas
The English Concert/Andrew Manze
"Influenze ed Affinità": Italian and Austrian violin music of the 17th century
Hélène Schmitt (violin), Dane Roberts (violone), Stephan Rath (chitarrone), Jörg-Andreas Bötticher (harpsichord, organ)
Biber: Sonatas, Arias & Balletti
Combattimento Consort Amsterdam/Jan Willem de Vriend
"Biber and his time": Biber, G Muffat
L'Harmonie Universelle

La Rappresentatione di Anima, et di Corpo by Emilio de' Cavalieri, first performed in 1600, can be considered a key work in the history of Western music, being the first opera. Therefore it is a little surprising that this work is so seldom performed, let alone recorded. From that perspective it can be labelled as 'unusual repertoire'. But Christine Pluhar, with her ensemble L'Arpeggiata, certainly presented an 'unusual interpretation'. I am not so sure, though, whether in this case that is a positive thing. In particular unusual was the inclusion of some musical material written in an idiom, miles away from Cavalieri's. It is rather odd that Christine Pluhar, on the one hand, openly criticises Emmanuelle Haïm for compromising the historical performance practice in her recording of Monteverdi's Orfeo, and, on the other hand, seems to think Cavalieri's score isn't good enough for a modern audience and needs to be spiced with popular elements. The fact that this performance was semi-staged didn't make it any better: some elements, like the dancing and the use of pieces of cloth, were rather incomprehensible. The staging should enlighten the audience about the meaning of what is going on, not confuse them. Fortunately the musical part of the performance was a lot better, and makes the upcoming recording something to look forward to. All singers gave good interpretations of their respective characters. Marco Beasley was particularly good as Corpo, hesitating between the temptations of worldly life and the eternal happiness of heavenly life. The temptations of worldly life are represented in particular by Piacere, vividly portrayed by Dominique Visse. Jan Van Elsacker gave an impressive performance as Intelletto. Johannette Zomer and Stephan MacLeod were also good as Anima and Consiglio respectively, although I have some reservations in regard to their style of singing, in particular the too frequent use of vibrato. The playing of the instrumentalists was excellent. All in all it was a rather ambiguous performance.

The rappresentazione has its origins in the medieval religious drama. Originally the text was recited, and was interspersed by laude, madrigals and also frottole, used as a kind of intermedii. Marco Beasley, with his ensemble Accordone, presented a number of frottole mainly by Italian composers of around 1500 (not 1600, as the programme sheet told). Some of the most prominent composers of this kind of four-part songs were represented in the programme, like Marchetto Cara and Bartolomeo Tromboncino. Marco Beasley's very relaxed and communicative way of singing, with additional gestures, is excellently suited to the repertoire. Of course one could put some question marks to the way some of the pieces were 'arranged'. Playing three of the vocal parts on lutes is reasonable enough, but the use of an organ in this kind of music is a wholly different matter.

This year a lot of attention is given to Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, as part of the commemoration of his death in 1704. In this year's festival Biber was presented as 'composer in residence'. Although Biber is mainly associated with instrumental music, in particular music for the violin, he also has composed a respectable amount of religious music, mostly to be performed in Salzburg Cathedral. Andrew Manze, directing the English Concert, performed the Missa Christi resurgentis, interspersed by a number of instrumental sonatas. Music written for large spaces, like Salzburg Cathedral, often fall flat on its face when performed in an unsuitable venue. It wasn't very different this time: the modern concert hall of Vredenburg is not the right place to do any justice to a very good piece of music as this mass is. It was mainly due to the virtuoso brass parts that it was still able to make any impression. But that the performance as a whole was disappointing wasn't only caused by the acoustical circumstances. I found the sound of the choir not very pleasant, and often outright ugly. When a programme like this is performed in a concert hall, it is rather odd to make the choir enter in form of a procession, singing lines from the mass on a motif from Biber's Sonata Pauernkichfahrt. But when they did, they sounded like a monk's choir of the 1960's, with heavy vibrato - in particular in the men's voices - and no blending at all. It was slightly better during Biber's Mass, but especially in the passages for the lower voices the strong vibrato was annoying. The sonatas were slightly better, but not a lot: too many irregularities in the ensemble playing and frequent intonation problems. And on the whole the interpretation of the sonatas, in particular those for strings only, was too bland.

In this respect the lunchtime concert of the Combattimento Consort Amsterdam was the extreme opposite of the English Concert's performance. It had chosen some works in which Biber makes use of folkloristic elements: the above-mentioned Sonata Pauernkirchfahrt, the Sonata Jucunda and the Arien a 4, together with the Balletti lamentabili a 5. Over the years this ensemble has given energetic and stylish performances of 17th and 18th century music, integrating the principles of the historical performance practice in their playing on modern instruments. But the older the music and the thinner the score the more the limitations of modern instruments become clear. Although this concert was very enjoyable and did full justice to the popular character of Biber's music played here, some effects Biber has made use of did sound a little too rough.

Sonatas for violin and bc were presented by Hélène Schmitt in a concert which showed how the main composers in Austria at the end of the 17th century - Biber, Schmelzer and Georg Muffat - were influenced by Italian music, here represented by Vitali, Uccellini and Albertini. The Italian music was performed convincingly, but in Biber and Muffat something was missing. Biber's Sonata violino solo representativa, with its imitations of animals, was played a little too seriously. Muffat's only sonata for violin could have done with a clearer articulation and more contrast.

Those contrasts were amply demonstrated by Florian Deuter, who with his ensemble L'Harmonie Universelle played a programme around Biber, which also featured the Sonata II from Muffat's Armonico Tributo (1682) and two Partia's by Biber: Partia I from Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa (1696) and Pars III from Mensa sonora (1680). All those works were given very fine and eloquent performances, exploiting the contrasts and demonstrating the peculiarities of the scordatura-technique Biber uses.

Part Three

"Un concert pour Mazarin": Bassani, Cazzati, Cima, Grandi, Monteverdi, Rossi, Uccellini et al Philippe Jaroussky, countertenor; La Fenice/Jean Tubéry
"Dialoghi venetiani": Catello, A Gabrieli, Marini, Merula, Rognoni, Uccellini et al
La Felice/Jean Tubéry
Couperin & Rameau
L'Armonia Sonora
"Italian antics: Les goûts-réünis: Barrière, F Couperin, A Forqueray, Leclair
Musica ad Rhenum/Jed Wentz
"La lutte des goûts nationaux": Corelli, Dandrieu, Leclair, Locatelli, de Mondonville, Vivaldi
Opera Quarta
Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine
La Sfera Armoniosa/Mike Fentross
"Musickes Sweetest Joyes": Corkine, Hume, R Jones, Locke, Purcell, Simpson
Mieneke van der Velden, Jaap ter Linden, Fred Jacobs, Peter Kooy
"Recitar cantando": Busatti, Frescobaldi, Monteverdi, Peri, Sances
Silvia Piccollo, Marco Beasley, Accordone/Guido Morini
Dufay: Missa Se la face ay pale
Diabolus in Musica/Antoine Guerber
"Chant Wars
Dialogos/Katarina Livljanic, Sequentia/Benjamin Bagby
Brahms: Concerto for pianoforte and orchestra no. 1 in d minor, op. 15; Haydn-variations, op. 56a; Symphony no. 1 in c, op. 68
Alexei Lubimov, fortepiano; Anima Eterna/Jos Van Immerseel

The overall subject of this festival was 'musical controversy'. One of them was between the Italian and the French style. In the 17th century French writers about music were debating the pros and cons of both styles. The popular view is that the French didn't like Italian music, but that is a simplification. Italian musicians did perform in France, and Italian music was played and sung. And quite a lot of people were in fact fascinated by the Italian style. A crucial figure was the Cardinal Mazarin, born in Italy as Giulio Mazzarino. He propagated Italian music, and it was on his initiative that operas by Rossi and Cavalli were performed. At the same time there was opposition: writers tried to declassify the Italian style and to prove that French music was in every way superior.

The ensemble La Fenice gave a fascinating overview of the music which was sung and played in France, and have come down to us in French manuscripts. The concert was appropriately called Un Concert pour Mazarin. It wasn't difficult to understand why many music lovers in France were fascinated by the pieces played here by composers like Cima, Grandi, da Viadana, Uccelllini, Cazzati, Monteverdi, Rossi and others. At the same time this kind of music was giving food to those French who criticised Italian music for being 'too virtuosic'. That is what many of them certainly are. It is far less easy to understand why they thought they lacked passion and emotion. In particular the vocal works were full of those qualities.
Another thing which the French traditionalists in the 17th century didn't like was the very high voice, in particular the castrato, which was considered typically Italian - correctly, as this type of voice was so dominant in Italian opera. It is ironic that in this concert it was a French 'countertenor' - as he labels himself - who was the soloist: Philippe Jaroussky, a singer with a remarkably high and light voice, which in the 17th century perhaps would be considered 'feminine'. Jaroussky is a phenomenal singer, and it was clear from the reaction of the audience that many people hadn't heard him before. He made a huge impression, and for large parts of the audience he was the discovery of the festival. The ensemble La Fenice wasn't any less brilliant, though: the concert was definitely one of the highlights of this year's festival. The ensemble underlined its qualities by another excellent performance of Italian music during a lunchtime concert.

Shortly after 1700 Italian music did gain ground. French composers openly admitted their admiration for Italian music and started to integrate Italian elements in their compositions. One of them was François Couperin, who in his Goûts-Réünis aimed at a mixture of the best in French and Italian music, and in his Apothéoses for Lully and Corelli respectively showed his admiration for these masters who were generally considered the most characteristic representatives of the respective national styles. L'Harmonia Sonora, Musica ad Rhenum and the ensemble Opera Quarta gave fine performances of music by Couperin and by French composers of later generations who were more or less strongly influenced by Italian music - like Barrière, Dandrieu and Leclair. Opera Quarta added music by real Italians: Vivaldi and Locatelli. The latter's appearance in one programme with Leclair was most appropriate: they also played once alongside each other in Germany, and whereas Leclair was praised for his delicate playing Locatelli was criticised for his unpolished sound and overly virtuosic style of playing. As this ensemble only last year was playing in the fringe of the festival, with this year's performance it amply demonstrated that it fully deserved to be part of the main programme.

The other two 'musical controversies' didn't really come off the ground. The first was the one between the defenders of the traditional polyphony, the prima prattica, and the representatives of the 'new style', the seconda prattica, in Italy around 1600. The theorist and composer Giovanni Maria Artusi (c1540 - 1613), in his L'Artusi, ovvero Delle imperfezioni della moderna musica (1600), launched a scathing attack on the modern style, and Monteverdi in particular. But since only Monteverdi and other representatives of the seconda prattica were programmed in the festival, there was no such thing as a 'controversy' to be experienced. The performance of Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Vergine, though, was well suited to underline the fact that the emergence of the new style didn't necessarily mean the death of the old polyphonic style: Monteverdi intermingles both styles in the psalms of the Vespers. One could call the Vespers a perfect example of the goûts-réünis, in this case a mixture of old and new.
La Sfera Armoniosa, directed by Mike Fentross, gave a performance in which there was a lot to enjoy, but which also raised some questions. The soloists were all fine, and well acquainted with the stylistic requirements of this music, and the voices also blended well (with one exception, about whom later). From that point of view this performance was nearly ideal, with a group of instrumentalists which was quite impressive.
But a couple of things puzzled me. Apparently, this wasn't a liturgical performance. But then why were some liturgical chants added at the end? And when the antiphons preceding the Psalms and the Magnificat are not sung, what sense does it make to perform the solo concertos which are meant to take the place of the (repeated) antiphons following them?
Even stranger and, as far as I am concerned, quite annoying was that the singers stepped forward to perform the solo concertos in front of the ensemble as if these were opera arias which gave them an opportunity to show their skills. Unfortunately the tenor Ian Honeyman did just that: his gestures while singing Nigra sum were completely inappropriate here. He was the only weak link in the cast: his voice didn't fit very well into the ensemble and disturbed the balance between the voices.
Although the performance as a whole offered plenty to enjoy, the phrasing could have been clearer and rhythmically a little sharper profiled.

One of the features of the seconda prattica was the way the text was treated. Whereas in the prima prattica the music had a leading role, and the text was often difficult to understand, the representatives of the new style stressed the domination of the word over the music. In order to create the opportunity to tell a story in a natural way, Monteverdi and his contemporaries made use of recitar cantando, the singing in a speaking manner. It was this practice which Marco Beasley, artist in residence of this year's festival, demonstrated in the concert with his ensemble Accordone. He started with one of Monteverdi's most famous compositions, Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. Originally this work has three roles, sung by three different singers. Mostly these parts are performed in a theatrical manner, but here Beasley sung all three parts, telling the story as a testo, rather than playing it. An aria by Busatti was treated the same way: with effective gestures Beasley made clear what the character in the aria was saying. The technique of recitar cantando also led to a very moving performance of Monteverdi's La lettera amorosa by the soprano Silvia Piccollo. In the second part the main piece was a long fragment from Jacopo Peri's opera Euridice. The performances were again very eloquent and expressive, although the use of loudspeakers to reproduce the voices of Plutone and Proserpina was a not so convincing solution to the problem that there seemed to be no singers available to take over those roles. But on the whole it was a very interesting display of the emotional impact the style of recitar cantando can have. And I am certain those students who have followed Marco Beasley's masterclasses on this subject during the festival have received a lot to think about and to work with.

Let me give some short comments on a couple of other concerts, not related to any theme.
Mieneke van der Velden is the best-known Dutch viol player of the younger generation. Together with one of her former teachers, Jaap ter Linden, the theorbo player Fred Jacobs, and bass Peter Kooy, she gave a concert with English music of the 17th century. It was a concert with many very fine pieces, most of which are rather little-known, and often more virtuosic than one would expect from English music of that era. The playing of all participants and the singing of Peter Kooy was highly enjoyable.
The French ensemble Diabolus in Musica gave a performance of Dufay's Missa Se la face ay pale, with additional Proper-chants, also by Dufay. The ensemble's aim is to work from the manuscripts and to pay attention to the social, artistical and historical context. In the light of this it is rather strange to see the director, Antoine Guerber, conduct his ensemble beating time: what is the difference with Peter Phillips, who admits to be not interested in historical performance practice while performing with his Tallis Scholars? And the ensemble's pronunciation is only slightly different from the traditional Italian. I remember much bigger differences in the pronunciation of this kind of repertoire in performances of the Cappella Pratensis.
Musical controversy of very old times was displayed by the ensembles Dialogos and Sequentia. Their concert, entitled Chant Wars, was about "the legendary 9th-century confrontation between the cantors of the Carolingian emperors and the various regional European chant traditions they sought to replace with their own musical repertoire and vocal styles", as the programme notes said. It was a most impressive display of the different styles of singing and the repertoire of the respective traditions. Concerts like these are very important to make us aware that what to us is the liturgical chant of the ancient Christian church - what is called gregorian - is not that old and it was just due to some historical circumstances that it came out of this confrontation as the winner. The performances were very impressive. Benjamin Bagby, in his performance of the prologue to a Franconian translation of the Gospels, showed again he is a most eloquent story teller.

Lastly: another musical controversy, that between Wagner and Brahms, was the cause for the concert by Anima Eterna, conducted by Jos Van Immerseel, with the first Symphony, the first Piano Concerto and the Haydn-Variations by Brahms. This again was a subject which didn't really came to life, as hardly anything of Wagner's music was performed during the festival. In the end it was just a concert with romantic repertoire, perhaps played for the first time on period instruments. Like some years ago, when the same orchestra played a programme with music by Tchaikovski, I was more intrigued by its playing than by the music, which is a little out of my range. Since I have nothing with which to compare the interpretations I can only say that the orchestral playing was of the usual high standard, even though sometimes the brass were a little less than perfect. The dynamic differences were admirable, and the clarity - partly due to the lack of vibrato in the strings - remarkable. Perhaps the most problematic part of the concert was the first Piano Concerto, in which Alexei Lubimov played the solo part on a Bechstein of 1870. Often the balance between orchestra and early pianos in a large concert hall is rather problematic, but far less so here. On the one hand, the dynamic range of this piano differs from pianos as used in the concertos by Beethoven, for instance, on the other hand Lubimov didn't hold back in any way in exploiting the dynamic possibilities. I wonder, though, if he really used the most appropriate technique to treat an instrument like this. In a way it did sound a little too 'modern' to my ears. But after all, a concert like this isn't something to answer questions, but rather to contribute to the debate about how to perform late 19th-century music in a historically respectful way. Seen from that angle this concert was a great success.

Looking back I have to say that my fears of two years ago about the way this festival would develop have been belied and that my hesitant optimism of last year has got a firm boost. Due to the limited financial resources the number of events has been reduced, but the quality was remarkable, and that is what counts most. Inevitably there are some disappointments, but that is all in the business. I would in particular praise the director of the festival, Jan Van den Bossche, for having the guts to programme a high-risk production like Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, which for me was the highlight of this festival, but also one of the best events in the history of the festival. One just hopes that this production will convince sceptics that the historical performance practice isn't just something which regards the use of instruments and the way of playing them, but also acting, dancing and staging theatrical works of the 17th and 18th centuries.
I just have two wishes: bring the programme book back. And may we have programme sheets with less printing errors, please?

Top of page

Johan van Veen (© 2004)

Concert reviews