musica Dei donum





Concert reviews






Holland Festival Early Music Utrecht 2005

Day One   Day Two   Day Three   Day Four   Day Five   Day Six   Day Seven   Day Eight   Day Nine

Day One: 26 August

Over the years people have been complaining that the Holland Festival Early Music in Utrecht was moving too far into the 19th century, and even contemporary music was programmed, and that the 'real' early music, music of the pre-baroque era, was neglected. They can't complain this year: the overall subject of the festival is '10 centuries of polyphony'. Jacob Obrecht is 'composer in residence', as he died in 1505. The other renaissance composer who is paid attention to, is Thomas Tallis, who was most likely born in that same year.
It was Tallis' most spectacular composition, the 40-part motet Spem in alium, which was performed during the opening night, which took place in the Cathedral (Domkerk). Normally this church is avoided in the programming of the festival, because of its large reverberation, which makes the performance of much repertoire rather difficult. But for polyphonic vocal music, with its long legato lines and not too fast tempi this church is almost ideal, as it indeed turned out to be during the opening event.

It started with plainchant, monophonic of course - 13th-century chants from the mass for the Assumption. These chants were sung as the audience entered the church. So it was mainly background music, sometimes hardly audible, but just enough to create the right atmosphere and to prepare the audience for the things to come. Early polyphony was performed by the Ensemble Organum, directed by Marcel Pérès. Listening to these chants one realises how much our experience of time differs from that of the Middle Ages. These chants seem to progress at an incredibly low speed and require a lot of patience from the audience. The ensemble also sang a piece Marcel Pérès has composed himself, under the influence of the music he pays so much attention to. But it just dragged on for too long, turning into a rather modern piece of a more or less minimalistic character. In comparison the pretty long pieces of 'real' early music were much easier to swallow.

The performance of traditional chants from the Finno-Ugrian cultural region (where Finland, Russia and Estonia meet) seems to be a little out of touch with a programme of 'classical' polyphony, in particular as the pieces sung by the ensembles Ma Naiset and Toorama are not religious in character and are not intended to be sung in a church. On the other hand, this music is certainly no simple 'folk music', but rather complicated polyphonic music which is still in existence and which these ensembles attempt to preserve. The sound production and the use of the human voice may seem very different from that in traditional polyphony, the confrontation between these performances and those of the Ensemble Organum was most interesting, as this ensemble's interpretations are also influenced by traditions still in existence - in Sardinia and Corsica this time. Hearing them after each other reveals their style of singing is less different than one would expect.

A festival choir, directed by Adrián Rodríguez van der Spoel, sang some pieces from the Llibre Vermell, a motet by Guerrero and, as said, Tallis' motet Spem in alium. It was a shame the spatial possibilities of the church weren't used, as they were during the rest of the programme. The motet would have been even more spectacular had the sounds come from different directions. But that probably would be a little too complicated for what was an 'ad hoc' choir after all. One the one hand Tallis' motet never fails to make a huge impression, on the other hand it is a most eloquent argument in favour of the monodic style, as the text of the motet can hardly be understood, certainly not in a reverberant church.

In a programme with polyphony one of the greatest composers of polyphonic music of all time, Johann Sebastian Bach, can't fail. So some of his organ pieces were played by Leo van Doeselaar. One of Bach's most ingenious compositions, the 'Triple Fugue' in E flat (BWV 552/2), usually interpreted as a tribute to the Trinity, was closing the night. The large organ in the Cathedral, a 19th-century instrument by Bätz, is hardly the appropriate vehicle for Bach's music, but Leo van Doeselaar did manage to keep the polyphony clearly audible and to show the ingenious way in which the three subjects are interwoven.

Due to intelligent programming and good performances this was an evening which made one look forward to what the festival has in store.


Day Two: 27 August

The lunchtime concerts belong to the most succesful events of the festival. In particular the concerts on both Saturdays guarantee a big audience. That wasn't different this time, as Musica Amphion, directed by Pieter-Jan Belder, played Bach's Musicalisches Opfer. One of the problematic aspects of a festival like this is the relationship between the music and the venue where it is performed. The Musicalisches Opfer is a chamber music work, played here with transverse lute, violin, cello and harpsichord. The large auditorium wasn't the right place to play this piece. I wouldn't go so far to say that it fell flat on its face, but it didn't have the impact it would have had if it had been played in a more intimate atmosphere, where it belongs. I have also to say that I didn't find the performance very inspired. Some tempi were a little too slow, but I missed the energy, the contrast and the colour I expect in a performance of this masterpiece. The flautist Kate Clark was alright, but I have problems with the violinist Rémy Baudet, whose sound I find too pale and thin. I also don't understand why in some pieces a chamber organ was used. The parts I enjoyed most were the ones played by Pieter-Jan Belder on the harpsichord.

In the afternoon I attended the first concert of this festival which was devoted to the 'composer in residence', Jacob Obrecht. Here the venue was spot on: the medieval Nikolaïkerk, which has exactly the right atmosphere and the reverberation where this music can blossom. The concert was given by the Flemish ensemble Capilla Flamenca, directed by Dirk Snellings. The plainchant during the concert was performed by the ensemble Psallentes, directed by Hendrik Vanden Abeelen. The Capilla Flamenca is one of the most interesting and enterprising ensembles in the field of renaissance music as several aspects of this concert showed.
Firstly, in this concert the compositions by Obrecht were put in their liturgical context. The concert wasn't a 'liturgical reconstruction' of any kind, but, as the programme notes said, "Capilla Flamenca and Psallentes have decided to present an imaginary Mary celebration, a mosaic compiled from elements of different celebrations throughout the church calender".
Another interesting aspect is the pronunciation of the Latin texts, which avoids the characteristics of the Italian pronunciation mostly used in present-day performances, and is closely connected to the Dutch language, the vernacular in the city of Bergen op Zoom where Obrecht lived a number of years. Whether the particular pieces which were performed during the concert ever have been performed in those years is another matter, of course.
Also interesting is that in some pieces the upper voices were sung by a group of children. These were specifically trained for this project. Is it an indication of the decay of cathedral choirs of boys and men in Belgium that no experienced young singers were available and that most of the children were girls? Their contributions, admirable as they were, did show a lack of experience in comparison with those all-male choirs who sing together on a daily basis and receive a day-to-day training in music of this kind.
Another widespread phenomenon during the renaissance was the alternatim practice: liturgical pieces are partially sung and partially played at the organ. This practice was also applied during this concert, in which the organ was played by Reitze Smits. The 'neo-baroque' Marcussen organ is not the ideal instrument for this task, but better suited than any specific baroque or romantic organ. And Reitze Smits wisely avoided the most unpleasant sound characteristics of this organ.
The concert as a whole was a most interesting and musically rewarding experience.

For a long time the music of Alessandro Scarlatti has been mostly neglected. But it seems he is making a strong comeback right now. In particular some of his oratorios have been received and recorded recently. These turn out to be real discoveries to treasure. Fabio Biondi presented another oratorio in the night concert in the Muziekcentrum, La Santissima Annunziata. It was the first modern performance since the early 18th century.
It is a quite remarkable piece in more than one way. It was composed and performed in 1700 on a libretto by Cardinal Ottoboni, and received a second performance in 1708, which is notable considering the fact that most compositions in those days were performed just once and then laid to rest in the archives.
"The libretto tells the tale of the virgin Mary, who, after receiving the Archangel's message, is hesitant to accept her fate: after much consideration and the intervention of the remarkable allegoric trio of Virginity, Modesty and Suspicion, the Virgin welcomes her holy child and the joy and pain he will bring", according to the programme notes. One would expect a more or less static piece, but although the oratorio is not much more than a kind of 'inner dialogue' within the character of the Virgin Mary, it is in fact a pretty dramatic work.
The overture is so short that the entrance of Mary comes as a surprise. The same happens after her first aria: the orchestra plays a short sinfonia, and then all of a sudden the Angel bursts into the scene with his announcement to Mary that she is going to be the mother of Christ. And both parts of the oratorio end rather surprisingly.
Both in the vocal parts - Mary, the Angel, and the three 'inner voices', called 'Pensiero di Verginità', 'Pensiero di Humiltà' and 'Pensiero di Sospetto' respectively - and the instrumental parts the text is eloquently illustrated. The orchestral scoring is very modest: only strings and basso continuo, but Scarlatti uses them to great effect.
This oratorio was well performed by both soloists and orchestra, although I think some singers used a little too much vibrato, in particular the soprano Margherita Tomasi (Pensiero di Verginità) and the balance between singer and orchestra wasn't always ideal. Marta Almajano as the Virgin Mary and Emmanuela Galli as the Angel were particularly impressive. The mezzosoprano Romina Basso (Pensiero di Humiltà) and the tenor Carlo Putelli (Pensiero di Sospetto) were new names to me, but certainly singers to remember.
A festival like this is a great opportunity to present an unknown piece to a larger audience. Hopefully it will stimulate the interest in Alessandro Scarlatti, who - in spite of recent performances and recordings - is still an unknown quantity to many music lovers. That should change - Alessandro Scarlatti is a forgotten master. Perhaps he should be 'composer in residence' in one of the next editions of the festival.


Day Three: 28 August

The festival goes on, but I take a break in order to spend some time and energy to things which are more important.
The Fourth Commandment is one of the greatest gifts to mankind. Strongly recommended.


Day Four: 29 August

The overall subject of this year's festival is "10 centuries of polyphony". One of the earliest and also one of the most famous pieces of polyphony is certainly the Messe de Nostre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut. It may be not that frequently performed live, but it has been recorded quite a number of times. It was the subject of workshops given by Marcel Pérès and Rebecca Stewart. In the afternoon the mass - placed in the context of a devotional mass to the Virgin Mary - was performed by the 'Schola: Machaut', directed by Rebecca Stewart. The performance therefore reflected Ms Stewart's view on this work. I doubt if many music lovers who know Machaut's mass pretty well, would have recognized it from the performance, if they hadn't known beforehand that it was this mass which was going to be performed. The interpretation was different from any performance I have ever heard.
The first thing striking me was the very slow tempo: the whole performance lasted about an hour, whereas the recording by the Taverner Consort, for instance, which also performs the mass within a liturgical setting, takes about 45 minutes.
One of the characteristics of this mass is the alternation of long and short notes. In her programme notes Rebecca Stewart writes: "For him [Machaut] his French language was inseparable from his French music. Such uniquely French qualities as the short-long phrasing and the principle of levée (in which the supposedly unaccented short syllable - or in music, tone - is given more emphasis than the long syllable) may be found at every rhythmic level in the mass. This phenomenon produces a specifically French cadence within a phrase in which the 'normal' alternation of ebb and flow is virtually absent. The result is a musical tension which slowly but inexorably increases until the end of each section and movement."
I found this particularly striking in the largely homophonic and declamatory Gloria and Credo, where the contrast to the settings of the concluding 'Amen', in which Machaut makes use of the 'hoquetus' technique, was much stronger than I have ever heard before.
Another remarkable aspect of this performance was the use of dynamics: it isn't very often that crescendi and diminuendi are used in music of the renaissance. In addition, there was a regular sliding from one note to another or towards a single note, as well as stressing single notes within a phrase, in particular in the plainchant. A most peculiar effect. And then there was the specific colouring of the voice, which is difficult to describe, but is certainly most unusual in performances of this kind of music. It is impossible for me to tell whether this is the right way to perform this great work. I needed some time to get used to this way of singing. In this performance the Messe de Nostre Dame became less straightforward, less 'robust' and more intimate than in other performances. In my experience the mass had a stronger emotional impact than usual. Others may feel differently, but one thing is for certain: provoking interpretations like this are an invaluable part of the festival.

In the evening there were two concerts, one of which was specifically intended for the 'Friends of the Festival'. I'm not one of them, but as a wannabee reviewer you get everywhere. The concert was devoted to an aspect of early music which isn't given enough attention to: improvisation. Every musician in the field of early music is able to improvise, for example in the addition of ornamentation. But it is something which is mainly practiced in solo singing and playing. Improvising as an ensemble is something which is not common in the performance practice of early music.
The programme notes refer to improvisations on Gregorian chant in the 11th century, a technique which resulted in the 'organum style'. "Even in the sixteenth century, when polyphony had become most complex, it proved possible to improvise according to certain rules. Each singer had the cantus firmus in front of him, therefore this type of improvisation was called 'super librum' or 'contrappunte alla mente', 'counterpoint off by heart'."
This concert by the Huelgas Ensemble, directed by Paul Van Nevel, was devoted to this 'contrappunte alla mente'. Not that the singers actually improvised, but the programme was consisting of compositions which bear the traces of improvisation. Motets and mass movements were performed which are based on a cantus firmus, by Brumel (for example the Agnus Dei from his spectacular Missa Et ecce terrae motus), Brumel, Palestrina and Dufay, and by lesser known masters like Forestier, Agricola and Ashwell.
The cantus firmus could be almost everything: the hexachord (ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la), as in two mass movements by Palestrina and De Kerle respectively, or liturgical motifs, either plainchant or motets. Later on secular motifs were also used, like 'Berzerette savoyenne' (Brumel) and 'Baise moy' (Forestier).
The fact that the Council of Trent decided to ban the use secular motifs as cantus firmus is an indication that canti firmi were supposed to be recognized by the listeners. During the concert it wasn't that easy - at least not for me - to recognize them, although the programme sheet indicated which parts held the cantus firmus, and the singing of the Huelgas Ensemble was crisp and clear. Perhaps it takes some training and concentration to pick up the motifs composers used throughout their masses and motets. The easiest they were recognizable in the pieces in only two or three parts, like the ingenious 2-part Gaudeamus omnes by Agricola and the beautiful O florens rosa in 3 parts by Ghiselin. But in the case of Brumel's 12-part Missa Et ecce terrae motus one wonders whether the cantus firmus was intended to be recognized.
The concert closed with a relatively unknown piece: the Gloria from the 6-part Missa Ave Maria by the English composer Thomas Ashwell.
I wonder which ensemble takes the challenge of real 'contrappunte alla mente'. The festival would be the place to try.

Earlier that night a concert took place which wasn't related to the main subject of the festival. In the Muziekcentrum the ensemble Les Folies Françoises, directed by Patrick Cohën-Akenine, interpreted three pieces by Mozart, intended to be played at night, under the title 'Mozart Clair-obscur'. The programme started with the Serenata notturna (KV 239) and ended with what is perhaps Mozart's best-known work, 'Eine kleine Nachtmusik'. In between was a composition which is not that often played, and which is unusual in its length and technical requirements, the 'Zweite Lodronische Nachtmusik' (KV 287). In particular the parts of the two violins are quite demanding, and in the performance not everything was going as it should, in particular in regard to intonation. But it is a very fine work, and in this performance the adagio was especially very well played.
This kind of works were usually played with one instrument per part, and the Lodronische Nachtmusik was performed this way during the concert. Therefore it was surprising that the last item, 'Eine kleine Nachtmusik' (KV 525) was performed with the whole ensemble: 9 violins, 3 violas, 2 cellos and double bass. Not only is it hardly accurate historically, I believe a performance with one instrument per part does more justice to its character. In particular the menuetto was unsatisfying, as it lacked the necessary lightness. Fortunately the second movement, romance, was played in the right tempo, as an andante, not as an adagio in disguise, as so often happens.


Day Five: 30 August

In my report of the second day, Saturday 27 August, I wrote that one of the problems of this festival is the relationship between the music and the venue where it is performed. Today, Tuesday 30 August, that was demonstrated again. The ensemble Tetraktys, with Jill Feldman (soprano), Silvia Tecardi (viella), Kees Boeke (recorder and viella) and Marta Graziolino (harp), was bringing an interesting programme of music of the 14th and 15th centuries with the subject of the human body, in the medieval poetry mostly associated with love. A number of pieces belong to what is called the 'ars subtilior', very sophisticated and rhythmically complex music. Composers represented were Frate Andrea de' Servi, Franciscus Andrieu, Solage and De Machaut. The programme started and ended with music by Guillaume Dufay, who combined elements from the French ars nova (the polyphony of the 14th century) and the Italian 'trecento'. This music lives from the details, and unfortunately these were almost completely lost in the large reverberation of the Pieterskerk. I was fortunate to have a seat on the third row, and even there it was impossible to pick up everything the music has to offer. I'm sure the poor people who were sitting less closely to the ensemble haven't heard much more than pleasant melodies. Jill Feldman and her colleagues gave fine performances, as far as I can tell, although I was a little surprised by the frequent combination of recorder and viella.

The next concert took place in the Geertekerk, a much smaller church, which is frequently used for concerts, including performances of chamber music. Although the performance of polyphony, like the mass by Obrecht the German ensemble Weser-Renaissance presented, is certainly possible in this church, I would prefer to hear that kind of music in a larger church. The organisation of the festival should have swapped Weser-Renaissance and Tetraktys: the first in the Pieterskerk, the second in the Geertekerk.
Weser-Renaissance is an ensemble which mainly concentrates on German music from the late 16th to the late 17th century. Therefore I was a little surprised that they were invited to take part in the celebration of Obrecht in this festival. That the ensemble is not a real specialist in this kind of music is perhaps the reason the Missa Salve diva parens, which was composed when Obrecht was active in Brughes, was sung with the Italian pronunciation of Latin, which is certainly not the way it was pronunciated in his time, as the concert by the Capilla Flamenca (Saturday 27 August) demonstrated.
But I was quite happy with the way the ensemble, consisting of 8 singers and 4 instrumentalists, interpreted this mass. Some parts were sung with reduced voices (only 4 singers), in other places the four instruments - cornett and 3 sackbuts - were playing colla parte with the voices. The mass was interspersed by two beautiful motets: Beata es Maria and Ave regina celorum.

There were two concerts with orchestral music. The lunchtime concert was given by the Belgian group Les Muffatti, directed by Peter Van Heyghen, with a nice programme which started with the Concerto No. 2 from Georg Muffat's Armonico Tributo. This collection contains some of his finest music, and the ensemble gave a very good performance of this concerto. The next item was Telemann's Overture 'La Changeante', containing a sequence of dance movements of French, English and Italian origin, showing impressively the craftsmanship of the composer. The programme ended with Handel's Concerto grosso op. 6 No. 5. I can't remember having heard Les Muffatti before, but it certainly is a name to remember, and I hope to hear from them in the future.

The evening concert was given by the New Dutch Academy, directed by Simon Murphy. This orchestra has been founded specifically to play music from the period between baroque and classicism, in particular music from the Mannheim School. But it has also paid attention to Corelli (last year's closing concert of the festival), Bach and Mozart. In this concert the aim was to demonstrate how polyphony still played a role in music of a period which tried to develop new ways of composing. But the composers were well aware where they came from, and were willing to keep what was worthwhile. The first part was specifically devoted to the use of polyphony by composers of the mid-18th century and presented a sequence of fugal pieces, preceded by a kind of slow 'introduction'. The Adagio and fugue in d minor by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach is a relatively well-known piece, but I had never heard the Adagio and fugue in d minor by Johann Georg Albrechtsberger or the Andante and Allegro in G by Florian Leopold Gassmann. They are certainly worth being performed more often, as are the two pieces by Franz Xaver Richter, the Symphony a 8 in D and the Symphony a 4 in E flat, from which the fugue was played. The first part ended with a most unsual work by Mozart, the pretty gloomy Adagio and fugue in c minor (KV 546).
The main work in the second part was Mozart's last symphony, the 'Jupiter' (KV 551). Earlier in the week Simon Murphy, with his orchestra, had demonstrated during a lunchtime concert what the polyphonic element in this symphony is, in particular in the last movement with its four different subjects. This symphony was given a good performance, although I would have liked a little sharper articulation now and then, and a little more breathing space between some sections. But the quality of the orchestra is certainly impressive, as the last item on the programme also demonstrated: the overture to 'Die Zauberflöte', in which in particular the brass section did excell.
Although it is understandable that the orchestra likes to play more 'standard repertoire' from time to time, I certainly hope they don't forget why they were founded. The first part of the programme showed that there is a lot of good music to be discovered in the period of about 1740 to 1780.


Day Six: 31 August

Yesterday I attended the performance of one of Jacob Obrecht's masses by Weser-Renaissance. Although I thought the acoustics of the Pieterskerk were alright, I had preferred a little more reverberation which a larger church would provide. This feeling was even stronger today when I attended another concert in the Obrecht series, which again took place in the Pieterskerk. This time the British ensemble The Clerks' Group, directed by Edward Wickham, presented the Missa Sub tuum praesidium, interspersed by three motets - Quod chorus vatum/Haec Deum caeli, Factor orbis and Salve crux - while the concert ended with the 6-part Salve Regina.
In a church with a larger reverberation the singing of The Clerks' Group would have been less tiring. I was sitting in the third row, pretty close to the ensemble, and got weary because of the almost continuous forte singing by the ensemble. The whole interpretation was too monotonous and lacked the differentation which made the performance by Weser-Renaissance so admirable. The German ensemble's performance was characterised by a natural shaping of phrases, creating a nice ebb and flow within the mass. In comparison, the interpretation by the British ensemble was rather straightforward and lacked flexibility. I also noticed a continuous vibrato in some of the voices, and the fact that the voices of this ensemble don't blend that well.
Two aspects of the interpretation raise some question marks. First, this mass has been composed in Antwerp. Nevertheless the Latin text was pronunciated in Italian manner, which can't be historically justified in any way. I don't want to generalise, but it seems to me in particular British ensembles are taking things a little too easily in matters like these. Secondly, one of the features of this mass is the increase in the number of parts. The Kyrie is for 3 voices, whereas the Agnus Dei is written in 7 parts. I don't know how this mass has been performed in Obrecht's time, but it seems to me there are two possible ways to deal with this. The first would be to perform it with one voice per part. In that case the mass starts with 3 singers and ends with seven. The other option would be to perform the whole piece with seven singers which divide the three parts, and then gradually split into seven independent parts. Here only the Kyrie was performed with reduced voices (each part with two singers), whereas the two other voices joined them in the Gloria.

I was much more pleased with the concert, given earlier in the afternoon in the Auditorium (Academiegebouw) of the University by the ensemble Sette Voci, founded four years ago and directed by the Dutch baritone Peter Kooy. The five singers - Dorothee Mields, Hana Blaziková, Dantes Diwiak, Julius Pfeifer and Dominik Wörner - are either German or are very experienced in singing German music. That seems to me a prerequisite for the performance of pieces from the collection of sacred madrigals by Johann Hermann Schein, which was published in 1623 as 'Israelsbrünnlein'. These are wonderful and very expressive pieces on mainly biblical texts - most of them from the Old Testament -, and written under the influence of the Italian madrigals as they were composed in the early 17th century. Schein suggests several options for the performance, including the use of instruments to play colla parte. Another possibility is to perform them with basso continuo. In this case the bass of the chord instrument doubles the lowest vocal part (basso seguente) and can add some chords. This is the way these madrigals were performed here - the ensemble was joined by De Profundis, with Stephan Schultz (cello) and Masato Suzuki (organ - he replaced the indisposed Anne-Catherine Bucher).
The five singers of the ensemble all have fine voices, which blend very well. They are also aware of the peculiarities of these madrigals and the content of the texts Schein has set to music. The very expressive character of these pieces was fully exploited. One of the most striking madrigals in this respect is 'Da Jakob vollendet hatte', performed a capella this time, which was one of the highlights of the concert. The strong contrasts in 'Die mit Tränen säen' (Psalm 126, vs 5 - 6) were realised very well. If there was anything to criticise it is perhaps the singing of Dantes Diwiak, shifting from chest to falsetto register, which wasn't always working perfectly. On the whole this was an excellent concert, one of the highlights of the festival so far.


Day Seven: 1 September

Jacob Obrecht may have had the honour to be nominated 'composer in residence', since he died 500 years ago, Thomas Tallis, probably born in that same year, wasn't overlooked. A number of concerts were devoted to his work. Today the British ensemble Trinity Baroque, which - despite its name - mainly concentrates on music of the renaissance, gave a concert with music grouped around the Missa Puer natus est. In addition to the mass some liturgical chants were sung, as well as some secular songs - carols and French chansons - which were sung at the English court in Tallis' time, by composers like Cornysh, Hayne de Ghizeghem and King Henry VIII.
In yesterday's report I showed my dismay about the neglect of period pronunciation of Latin by The Clerks' Group in their performance of a mass by Obrecht. I added that it seemed to me most British ensembles are taking things too easily in this respect. I am delighted to say that Trinity Baroque isn't one of them. The Latin texts were consistently pronunciated the English way, which sometimes made it difficult to follow the text as printed in the programme sheet. The English texts of the carols were also pronunciated in a way, which reflects the results of extensive research in this field. It is praiseworthy that Julian Podger, the director of Trinity Baroque, and his colleagues are willing to incorporate those into their performances.
The use of the spatial possibilities of the Geertekerk didn't make much sense to me. I just couldn't figure out why some pieces were sung from the backside of the church. I also wasn't quite happy with the inclusion of secular items into the programme. The continuous jumping from sacred to secular and back wasn't very satisfying. And apart from the fact that a church is not the most appropriate venue for secular music - for acoustical reasons -, the performance seemed a little too static and sophisticated to me.
The performance of the sacred items was much better, and I really enjoyed the performance. The ensemble contains of fine voices, which blend well, and generally use less vibrato than The Clerks' Group. In regard to dynamics this performance was also much more differentiated than yesterday's. And the concert showed that the use of period pronunciation isn't just a matter of historical correctness. It creates an atmosphere of authenticity which - at least in my experience - brings the music closer to today's listener than performances which neglect the circumstances under which the music was originally performed.

Polyphony is also part of two large-scale sacred works by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, which were performed by Le Concert Spirituel, directed by Hervé Niquet, in the Muziekcentrum. The first item was the Messe à 8 voix et 8 violons et flûtes (H 3), which was composed in the early 1670's. Like the second piece on the programme, the Te Deum à 8 voix avec flûtes et violons (H 145), it was the direct result of a trip to Rome, where Charpentier got acquainted with the polychoral style which was practiced over there. In the mass the two choirs are of equal standing, whereas in the Te Deum the large choir is contrasted by a small choir. In both pieces some passages are set for solo voices. As both works are written for special occasions there is a lot of 'pump and circumstance' here, and in both works there are a number of passages in which the orchestra can shine. The fact that the scoring of the Te Deum doesn't include trumpets and drums doesn't diminish its brilliant effect.
In these large-scale works there is less opportunity to illustrate the text in the music. In these pieces Charpentier uses the polychoral structure to pay attention to elements in the text. In the Sanctus of the Mass the glory of God, as referred to in the second section (Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria sua), is depicted by a gradual increase in the number of parts. And in the Te Deum he uses the same practice on the same words (Pleni sunt coeli et terra: majestatis gloriae tuae). In the Credo of the Mass Charpentier doesn't miss the opportunity to underline the eternal rule of Christ, by frequently repeating the word 'non' (cuius regni non erit finis).
Charpentier's music proved again to be very impressive and enjoyable. It was given a generally good, although not entirely satisfying performance. I didn't like the vibrato by some of the soloists, and I also noted that in the fast passages there was a lack of clarity, which sometimes made the text difficult to understand. I know that Hervé Niquet isn't afraid of very fast tempi - he rather seems to like them -, but unfortunately this sometimes means the articulation becomes a little muddy, as was the case here.


Day Eight: 2 September

Whereas most concerts devoted to polyphony contained vocal music, like masses and motets, today the lunchtime concert saw an ensemble of five recorders playing music of the late 15th and the 16th century. The ensemble Mezzaluna was founded in 2003 by its director, the Belgian recorder player Peter Van Heyghen, with the specific goal to perform polyphonic music written between around 1480 and 1630. They make use of a consort of recorders made by Adrian Brown in Amsterdam. The recorders are careful copies of historical instruments preserved in European museums.
Shortly after its foundation the ensemble was playing in the festival in Utrecht. Then the programme was mainly devoted to motets and mass movements in period transcriptions for a consort of instruments. This time the programme was a little lighter in character, perhaps more appropriate to be played in a lunchtime concert, which attracts a wider audience than just the early music diehards.
It was a nice programme, well put together, consisting of chansons and madrigals in period transcriptions. Among them well-known pieces like Obrecht's Tandernaken and Josquin's La Spagna and Plusieurs regretz. There were also lesser-known compositions, like the madrigal S'un medesimo ardor by Jan Nasco. Although the programme consisted mainly of pieces which can be considered examples of renaissance entertainment, they still require a lot of concentration from the audience, in particular if they are played on rather intimate instruments like recorders. In 2003, when I heard the ensemble, I considered their playing style a little too academic. This time they did better, and especially in a sequence of pieces from a book of dance music published by Susato they played with the vividness the music asks for. I was impressed by the qualities of their instruments and the purity of the playing.

Transcriptions of polyphonic works were also played in a concert by La Bassa Fiamenga, a cooperation between two keyboard players, the Dutchman Menno van Delft and the Italian Stefano Demicheli. They met some years ago during performances of Handel's Agrippina in Brussels and decided to play together. As there is not that much repertoire for two keyboard instruments, playing transcriptions is inevitable. Two ensemble pieces for 8 voices in 2 choirs by Giovanni Gabrieli, written with the specific spatial possibilities of the San Marco in Venice in mind, were played here on two harpsichords. The effect of pieces for 'chori spezzati' in a large church is largely lost on two harpsichords in a relatively small church like the Lutherse Kerk, in particular as the two harpsichords were very close to each other. But there was no other option than this, as also four sonatas from Bernardo Pasquini's 'Sonate per due bassi continui' were played. The composer only notated the bass line, which the players have to elaborate on. I don't know to what extent the players were really improvising or whether they had at least partially prepared their treatment of the material. The result did sound spontaneous enough to suggest they were largely improvised.
That was indicative of the whole concert. In my experience Menno van Delft is not the most extraverted and spirited player, at least not on the harpsichord (for whatever reason he is much more outgoing when playing the clavichord), but it seems the cooperation with his Italian colleague does have a positive influence on him. The concert ended with Bach: two fugues from the 'Kunst der Fuge' and the original version - without strings - of the Concerto for 2 harpsichords (BWV 1061), which were given very energetic performances.

The evening concert was devoted to a rarity: an oratorio by Buxtehude, or rather attributed to Buxtehude. 'Wacht! Euch zum Streit gefasset macht' is preserved in anonymous parts in the 'Düben collection', a collection of vocal and instrumental pieces, put together by Gustav Düben, music director at the Swedish court and friend of Heinrich Schütz (the collection is now at the University of Uppsala in Sweden). It was discovered in 1924 and attributed to Buxtehude, and published in 1939 under the title 'Das jüngste Gericht'.
Ton Koopman, having finished his project of recording the complete cantatas by Bach, is now preparing a recording of the complete works by Buxtehude. As part of this project he performed this oratorio in Muziekcentrum Vredenburg. If this work was indeed written by Buxtehude it will probably have been performed during the 'Abendmusiken', which took place in Lübeck - where Buxtehude was organist from 1668 until his death in 1707 - on a regular basis, originally weekly, but under Buxtehude's direction only five times a year, mainly because of his ambitious programming. It is questionable, though, whether this work which consists of three 'actus', would have been performed during one concert. Considering its length - about two and a half hours - it seems more likely that is has been intended for a performance over a couple of days.
Although the title it was given in the publication of 1939 is a modern invention, it is a correct indication of what the oratorio is all about. It is a warning against a unholy life in the perspective of the last judgment. In the first 'Actus' three characters are introduced as examples of this unholy life: Der Geitz (avarice), Die Leichtfertigkeit (frivolity) and Die Hoffarth (arrogance). The arias, in strophic form, are alternated with quotations from the Bible - mostly sung by the bass - and chorales.
The fact that the arias are strophic suggests a certain simplicity - and although that is not incorrect there are striking harmonic peculiarities which illustrate the content of the text. I had the feeling that the performance didn't always pay enough attention to them, in particular because of the generally fast tempi. Sometimes these were so fast that the singers were gasping for breath and the text wasn't always clearly articulated. The choir was too big in my view, and as a result the choral sound was too thick and heavy, and not as transparent as it should be.
The soloists, who were also singing with the choir in the choral parts, were generally good. Klaus Mertens was excellent in his delivery of the biblical quotations, although the use of the regale register of the organ in these parts sometimes almost drowned out his singing. The three sopranos Orlanda Velez Isidro, Caroline Stam and Johannette Zomer were all in fine form. Robin Blaze (alto), although singing well, seemed a little out of touch - I would have preferred a less British-sounding voice here. The tenor Andreas Karasiak had only a small part to sing, and didn't do that very convincingly.
It was a most interesting performance which leaves the question whether this is really a composition by Buxtehude. I am not qualified to give any verdict on that. But when listening to an unknown composition by a composer whose oeuvre is generally well-known, one usually hears at least something familiar. In the instrumental passages I didn't hear anything which reminded me of Buxtehude's chamber music. And only in the third 'Actus' I sometimes was reminded of Bustehude's cantatas, but that could be just my imagination. Hearing this work didn't convince me it is really a work by Buxtehude.


Day Nine: 3 September

The last day of the festival - for me, that is - was full of English music. The lunchtime concert started and ended with Purcell's well-known song Music for a while, sung by the Czech soprano Irena Troupová and the Orpheon Consort, directed by José Vázquez. The whole programme was devoted to music as played in the homes of the English aristocracy in the late 16th and the 17th century. Composers like Gibbons, Dowland and Holborne were represented, played on mostly original 17th-century English viols, which José Vázquez has collected over the years. I was impressed by the sound the ensemble produced, and I particularly liked the ornamentations José Vázquez, playing the discant viol, added to the top part in the consort pieces. Ms Troupová sang several consort songs by Gibbons, Byrd and an anonymous composer as well as another song by Purcell, the highly dramatic 'The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation'. She has a nice voice, which is well suited to this kind of music. She did use a little too much vibrato now and then, though, and her English pronunciation definitely needs some improvement ...

English polyphony of another kind was displayed in a concert with keyboard music of English composers around 1600: Byrd, Bull, Gibbons, Farnaby, Tisdale, Morley and Randall. This repertoire was played on the replica of a Dutch harpsichord, built by Lodewijk Theeuwes in 1579. The first owner of the original was Anthony Roper, friend of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. This gives some indication as to what kind of instruments were played at the end of the 16th century in England.
What better way to end a festival than a concert given by one of the pioneers of the early music movement, Gustav Leonhardt. At the age of 77 he is still going strong, and none of his qualities have faded away. He impressed one again with a concentrated performance, based on a thorough knowledge of the style of the English virginalists. His ornamentation is exquisite and tasteful, but never exaggerated. He doesn't impress with very fast tempi, but with a great and inimaginable sense of rhythm. His playing style may be characterised as 'analytical', this doesn't mean his performances are dry and academic. Far from it. A whole programme of music by English virginalists can be a little tiring after a while, but careful programming and a fine sense for the character of every individual piece are all part of Leonhardt's artistry. After listening to a performance like this one can only hope he will stay healthy and give us something to enjoy in the years to come.


Time to look back at the Holland Festival Early Music 2005. As always the final verdict can only be based on what I have heard, which is not more than about half of the programme. But on that basis it seems fair to say that this festival has been very succesful. First of all, one has to congratulate the director of the festival, Jan Vanden Bossche, for putting together a programme which was both interesting and consistent. In the history of the festival there were usually about four or five themes, sometimes with cross-connections between them. This year there was only one subject: polyphony. I don't know whether this is a deliberate change from the past, or just a coincidence, as polyphony is so wide-ranging that it allows to programme music of about five centuries which is all connected to that subject. Next year the main subject will be Italian music of the 17th century, but it would be a mistake if that would be the only one. The preferences among the audiences are different, and some are mainly interested in music of the middle ages and the renaissance. This preference has to be paid attention to.
The variety in performance styles - for instance in the series with music by Obrecht - is one of the most rewarding aspects of this festival. And so are new views on well-known music, like Rebecca Stewart's interpretation of Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame.
Creating a platform for unknown repertoire has always been one of the goals of this festival. This year we saw two pieces of 'new music': Alessandro Scarlatti's oratorio La Santissima Annunziata and the oratorio by Buxtehude. And although some concerts took place which contained a combination of early and 20th century music, there were no wild and tasteless experiments as we have seen some years ago.
On the whole the performances I heard varied. Some were disappointing, mostly from an interpretational point of view, not technically - maybe with the exception of the Mozart concert by Les Folies Françoises. Most were at least very interesting, some thought-provoking, others just excellent.

There are some things to wish for, though. I really would like to see the return of the programme book. Nobody is able to attend all concerts. But even when one doesn't attend a concert it is interesting to see what is on the programme and to read the programme notes going along with it, in particular when the concert is devoted to the same kind of music.
The programme sheets should be edited more carefully. Too often they are full of printing errors, and not uncommonly recitatives and arias are completely left out, which is very annoying.
And more attention should be payed to the relationship between the music to be performed and the venue where the performance takes place. It is a shame when a concert falls flat on its face because of a venue which is wholly unsuitable.


Top of page

Johan van Veen (© 2005)

Concert reviews

Home