musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

Holland Festival Early Music Utrecht 2006

Part One   Part Two   Part Three

Part One

Francesco Cavalli: L'Ipermestra, opera in 3 acts
Elena Monti (Ipermestra), Gaële Le Roi (Elisa), soprano; Emanuela Galli (Linceo), mezzosoprano; Fabián Schofrin (Delmiro), alto; Marcel Beekman (Berenice), Mark Tucker (Arbante), tenor; Sergio Foresti (Danao), bass
La Sfera Armoniosa Orchestra/Mike Fentross; stage director: Wim Trompert
Salomone Rossi
Ensemble Daedalus/Roberto Festa
"Il Canto delle Dame"
Concerto Soave/Jean-Marc Aymes

This year the Holland Festival Early Music in Utrecht celebrates its 25th year of existence. As it has always been the ambition of this event to bring a staged opera production, what better time to do it than as part of a jubilee edition? But it is a risky business: the financial situation of the festival has always been, still is and probably will ever be precarious, and a staged opera production is very expensive. But, as festival director Jan Van den Bossche writes, "sometimes one has to spend what is not there (yet)." He adds: "However, if we do go bankrupt after this production, I hope we will go down graciously".

I don't know about the financial situation after the festival has come to an end in about a week's time, but he can be sure that, if it goes down, it indeed goes down graciously. The opera production is something he can be proud of, and the theme of this year's festival is well-chosen and guarantees a number of concerts with interesting and often exciting repertoire.

Relatively few operas of the 17th century are regularly performed. We know Monteverdi's operas which are often performed and recorded, a handful of Cavalli's and some other operas, like the Orfeo's by Landi and Rossi. But considering the huge amount of operas composed in 17th-century Italy, these are only the top of the iceberg. When Mike Fentross, the leader of the ensemble La Sfera Armoniosa, was invited to take care of the opera production in this year's festival, he wanted to avoid the obvious. He found an opera never performed since the late 17th century by Francesco Cavalli, Venice's most prominent opera composer after Monteverdi.

L'Ipermestra was first performed in 1658 in Florence, under Spanish influence at the time. The libretto was written by Giovanni Andrea Moniglia, physician at the court of Cardinal Giancarlo de' Medici, a great patron of the arts, who wanted to have an opera performed to celebrate the birth of Infante Felipe Próspero, successor to the Habsburg throne. Cavalli, being Italy's most famous opera composer, was sent the libretto to compose the music. The first performance was called a festa teatrale, which was quite spectacular and therefore terribly expensive. The last performance took place in 1680 in Pisa in a commercial theatre. This was a slimmed-down version, without all the extravaganzas of the first performance. It is this version which was performed at the festival. Strictly speaking this is a non-authorised version, as Cavalli died in 1672.

The opera is about Ipermestra, one of the 50 daughters of King Danao of Argos. He wants to prevent a prophecy being fulfilled which says that his life and kingdom will be taken away from him by a lover of one of his daughters. Therefore he orders his daughters to kill their husbands in the wedding night. They all oblige, with the exception of Ipermestra, who is in love with Linceo, son of her father's brother Egitto. She urges Linceo to escape, and when her father learns what she has done, he locks her up. Linceo returns to the city with an army, and when he is falsely informed that Ipermestra has married someone else, he doesn't hesitate to destroy the city. King Danao is killed in the process. Ipermestra is desperate and throws herself off a tower, but is saved by a giant bird. Linceo learns that the story about the unfaithfulness of Ipermestra was made up, and when they meet, they vow fidelity once again.

There is little unanimity about how to stage a baroque opera. Over the years we have seen strongly different approaches in the festival. In 2002 Rameau's Platée was performed in a modern staging, which turned out to be pretty awful and tasteless, although many people seemed to like it. Diametrically opposed was the production of Lully's Le bourgeois gentilhomme by Le Poème Harmonique (2004) in a pretty strict period staging. The performance of Cavalli's L'Ipermestra is something in between these approaches. Although very detailed descriptions about the original staging in 1658 are available, the stage director decided not to use them. The costumes were inspired by Fra Angelico, which is justified by the fact that the original costumes also were based on old paintings. The scenery was modern, but sober and effective. No attempts were made to impress the audience with scenic tricks which distracts from what the opera is about.
The way of acting was a little inconsistent: sometimes the singers were speaking to each other, sometimes to the audience (according to the habits of the time). And in comparison with period practices there was perhaps a little too much moving around and there certainly was little baroque gesturing. But on the whole this production was tasteful and artistically convincing.

Mike Fentross can be gratulated for his choice of this opera, as it turns out to be a work of excellent quality. Cavalli has written very good music, both moving and dramatic. The duet in the third act between Ipermestra and Liceo is no less moving than the closing duets from Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea or some of Handel's operas. Of the characters the role of Elisa, Ipermestra's confidante, shows an interesting development from a docile girl into a strong woman who sticks to what she believes is right, not afraid to stand up against someone of a higher standing than herself.

I was pleased with the cast, with one exception. Elena Monti gave an excellent account of the title role, with a pleasant pure and very agile voice, and also very stylish. Linceo was portrayed convincingly by Emanuela Galli, both in his tenderness towards Ipermestra and his macho behaviour as the head of his army. Gaële Le Roi gave a very good interpretation of the role of Elisa - a little pale in the first act, more colourful and stronger later on, following in her singing the development of her character. Sergio Foresti sang the role of Danao with the right authority, and also with ruthlessness when he finds out that his own daughter has betrayed him. Fabián Schofrin did well as Liceo's general Delmiro, although I wasn't too happy with his frequent shifts from chest voice to falsetto. The comical element was Ipermestra's nurse Berenice, in Venetian tradition sung by a tenor. Marcel Beekman acted this role well, without overdoing it, but someone should tell him that it isn't really necessary to sing as loudly as possible so often. The only disappointing member of the cast was the tenor Mark Tucker. He didn't do too badly in his role as the deceitful Arbante (telling Linceo that Ipermestra had been unfaithful to him, just to steal her from him), but his singing was stylistically unsatisfying and out of touch with the rest of the cast.

The playing of the ensemble was brilliant - vivid, agile and colourful. The main characters got their own instruments in the basso continuo, for instance two harps for Ipermestra and organ with trombone for Danao. The ritornelli were played by recorders, trumpets and violins.
This production is certainly one of the highlights of this year's festival, and I hope this opera is going to be performed more often.
(More information about the opera and the libretto in the booklet which can be downloaded from Dutch radio).

It is no coincidence that Mike Fentross looked for an opera by Cavalli to be performed. To celebrate its 25th anniversary the festival is almost completely devoted to the Italian music of the 17th century. That is an excellent choice, for several reasons. First of all, as it was a time of change and experiment the Italian seicento is one of the most interesting and exciting periods in music history. And secondly, even though this period is very popular and is thoroughly explored, there is still a lot to be rediscovered, if only because of the huge amount of music composed for the many courts and churches competing with each other for fame and glory.

The programme of the festival proves that there is still a large amount of music which is hardly known. Salomone Rossi isn't a completely unknown quantity, if only for the fact that he was Jewish. But I don't think many people actually know his music. So it was a splendid idea to devote a programme to his music. The ensemble Daedalus, directed by Roberto Festa, presented a cross section of his musical oeuvre, with additional pieces by some of his contemporaries. It was a most interesting programme, showing the development in his way of composing madrigals, shifting from the prima to the seconda prattica. Also in the programme some of his settings of passages from the Bible in the original Hebrew on music in modern style. The ensemble gave fine performances: most vocal pieces were performed by voices with instruments playing colla parte. Some madrigals were sung by solo voice with instruments: baritone Josep Cabré strong and authoritative, tenor Josep Benet a little hesitant. With them, soprano Monika Mauch and tenor Bernd Lambauer the ensemble has four beautiful voices at its disposal which blend very well. The instrumentalists showed a good sense of rhythm in their swinging performances of pieces by Rossi, Trabaci and Cazzati. There was also some exquisite ornamentation, in particular by violinist Alessandro Ciccolini and Margherita Degli Esposti and Roberto Festa himself on recorder.

A specific feature of the seicento was the phenomenon of female composers. Some of them were active in aristocratic circles, like Barbara Strozzi and Francesca Caccini, daughter of Giulio. Others lived and worked in monasteries, and concentrated on composing sacred music, like Caterina Assandra and Isabella Leonarda. Concerto Soave presented a programme with music by these four women. The first part was devoted to sacred music, the second to secular works, both sections interspersed with instrumental pieces by other - male - composers. Although Barbara Strozzi didn't write a lot of sacred music the concert started with her setting of the Salve Regina. One doesn't find here the extravagance of some of her secular works, but she isn't afraid to use some strong dissonances and chromaticism here as well. It is a very expressive piece, splendidly sung by María-Cristina Kiehr. In comparison Caterina Assandra and Isabelle Leonarda are much more modest, but there is no lack of expression in their works either.

Listening to the secular pieces by Strozzi and Francesca Caccini it is easy to understand why they were taken seriously as composers: they were second to none in the exploitation of all means of rhetorics and affetti which were in vogue at the time.
The concert closed with a piece by a male composer, but with a woman as subject: the lamento Proserpina gelosa by Giovanni Felice Sances. This is a very dramatic composition about Proserpina, who has been kidnapped by Pluto and taken to hell. In this lamento she utters all her rage and anger, but also her pain. Ms Kiehr, whose singing I sometimes find a little too introverted, didn't hold back in any way, and gave a brilliant display of all the contrasting feelings by the protagonist in this intriguing work.

Part Two

Stefano Landi: La morte d'Orfeo, tragicommedia pastorale in 5 acts
Emmanuelle Halimi (Aurora, Euridice, Nisa), Cécile Kempenaers (Euretto), Céline Vieslet (Euretto), soprano; Guillemette Laurens (Calliope, Teti), Laurence Renson (Euretto, Fosforo), mezzosoprano; Christophe Laporte (Lincastro, Mercurio), Dominique Visse (Bacco, Caronte), alto; Cyril Auvity (Orfeo), Jan Van Elsacker (Fileno, Ireno), Vincent Lesage (Apolline, Furore), tenor; Matthew Baker (Fato nel cielo), bass-baritone; Emanuel Vistorky (Ebro fiume, Giove), bass
Akadêmia/Fran�oise Lasserre
Francesco Lucio: Il Medoro, drama per musica in 3 acts
Aurore Bucher (Angelica, Tradimento), Eugénie Warnier (Ecate, Miralba), soprano; Hjördis Thébault (Auristella, Gelosia), mezzosoprano; Gérard Lesne (Brimante), alto; Jean-François Novelli (Sacripante), tenor; Günter Haumer (Medoro), baritone; Edwin Crossley Mercer (Atlante), bass
Il Seminario Musicale/Gérard Lesne
Luigi Rossi: "Arias and Lamenti"
Stéphanie d'Oustrac, mezzosoprano
L'Arpeggiata/Christina Pluhar
Alessandro Grandi: Vocal music
La Risonanza/Fabio Bonizzoni
Instrumental music of the 17th century
Concerto Italiano/Rinaldo Alessandrini

Cavalli's L'Ipermestra wasn't the only opera to be performed during this year's festival. Every year the Friends of the Festival are offered a concert for their (financial) support. This time the ensemble Akadêmia, directed by Fran�oise Lasserre, performed an opera by Stefano Landi, La morte d'Orfeo, which was composed around 1619, on a libretto by an unknown author, probably Landi himself.

This opera is quite different from other operas about the Orpheus myth of the 17th century. It doesn't tell the story of the death of Euridice - she is only a relatively small character in Landi's Orfeo -, but as the title indicates it is about the death of Orpheus himself. After he finally has lost Euridice Orpheus does part with all worldly pleasures. When he decides to celebrate his birthday, he invited the gods and shepherds, but Bacchus is not welcome, nor are women. Bacchus is insulted and calls the Maenads to take revenge. They tear him to pieces, and Orpheus descends into the underworld once again. Here he meets Charon again, who still refuses to let him in. But he offers him to drink from the river Lethe, the waters of forgetfulness. Orpheus accepts the offer as he notices Euridice doesn't recognize him. After drinking from the water Orpheus transcends to Olympus. The closing chorus praises him as 'fortunato semideo', happy demigod.

The performance was non-scenic, which is a great challenge to the performers: the singing and playing has to do all the work to keep its dramatic character alive. Unfortunately they failed to do so. There was nothing wrong with the singers, who were good or even more than that. They all had nice voices, and sang very stylishly. Nor was there anything wrong with the instrumental ensemble, which gave the singers good support and contributed some instrumental pieces from other composers during the opera. One wonders, though, why those were needed, and in particular the performance of a Canzona by Giovanni Gabrieli at the beginning of Act 4 causes question marks.

But one hardly ever got the impression to listen to an opera. There was too little interaction between the protagonists - it looked like everyone was just singing his or her own part without communicating with each other. Very few singers did something with their roles - the main exceptions were Guillemette Laurens, Dominique Visse and Jan Van Elsacker. And the ensemble gave support, but didn't contribute to the dramatic character of the music and didn't push the singers forward in any way. The second half (Acts 4 and 5) was a little better, in particular the lament of Fileno (Van Elsacker). But on the whole the performance was a little dull, and one can only hope that the CD recording which will be released shortly, is better than this live performance.

As if this was not enough, a third opera was performed by Il Seminario Musicale, directed by Gérard Lesne. This time the composer was completely unknown: Francesco Lucio. He was a Venetian composer who was born around 1628 and died in 1658. He composed four operas, the last of which was Il Medoro. Its first performance took place in 1658, just half a year before the composer died from the injuries he received from a duel. It is also the only opera by Lucio which is complete, but ironically it was heavily cut for what probably was the first modern performance. This is no criticism, just stating a fact. I can understand the reasoning behind the decision to perform this opera in abridged form.

The libretto was written by the Venetian poet Aurelio Aureli, and is loosely based on Ariosto's Orlando furioso. The main protagonists are the lovers Medoro and Angelica, whose love the sorcerer Atlante tries to destroy with the help of the allegorical characters Tradimento (treason) and Gelosia (jealousy). They and everyone surrounding them are put on the wrong track by Atlante. And that in the face of the threat of a military attack by Sacripante. But, as usual, everything ends well, and the opera closes with a love duet by Angelica and Medoro.

The performance was non-scenic, like Landi's La morte d'Orfeo by Akadêmia. But that is about the only similarity between the two performances. Whereas Akad�mia delivered a rather academic performance, Il Seminario's account of Lucio's opera was anything but academic. It proved that it is indeed possible to deliver a dramatic performance without staging. The cast was almost ideal: not only had all singers fine voices, but they managed to express their parts very convincingly. The stars of the night were the three female singers, Aurore Bucher, Eugénie Warnier and Hjördis Thébault. In particular the interpretation of the role of Angelica by Aurore Bucher was brilliant. Gérard Lesne himself and Jean-François Novelli also gave fine performances. Surprisingly the two lowest voices, Günter Haumer and Edwin Crossley Mercer, had some problems to make themselves heard. Their voices did seem a little too weak to me. It took something away from their portrayal of their respective characters. The orchestra was colourful and theatrical, and the basso continuo players really pushed the singers forward.

This was a most memorable performance, and that makes it even more regrettable the opera wasn't performed in its entirety. Festival director Jan Van den Bossche may write in the booklet that Lucio isn't a 'new Cavalli', but I believe this opera fully deserves to be performed more often. One thing which I found interesting is that here we find arias which are more independent and fully developed than in Cavalli's L'Ipermestra, for instance (also first performed in 1658), and there are even some da capo arias. I sincerely hope Gérard Lesne will be able to make a CD recording of the entire opera, preferably with this cast.

Luigi Rossi is a little better known than his namesake Salomone (not related), who was the central figure in the concert by the ensemble Daedalus (see Part 1). Luigi Rossi wasn't only famous in Italy, but also elsewhere in Europe. In 1647 he composed his opera Orfeo at the request of Cardinal Mazarin, to be performed in Paris. L'Arpeggiata, directed by Christine Pluhar, performed some arias fro this opera, but also from his first dramatic work, Il palazzo incantato, which brought him his fame. In addition some arias from several manuscripts were performed, and instrumental pieces by his contemporaries Sances, Cazzati, Uccellini and Bertali.

The mezzosoprano St�phanie d'Oustrac gave excellent and expressive accounts of the arias, and the instrumentalists gave her good support. In the instrumental pieces the players demonstrated their great skills, for example in their fine sense of rhythm and their imaginative ornamentation. At the same time some aspects of the performance are questionable, for instance the use of a psaltery, which seems rather strange in this kind of repertoire. I would like to see some evidence that this instrument was used in this kind of music in Rossi's time. But Pluhar has shown more than once that she doesn't care that much about what his historically justifiable. In a concert I didn't attend, but heard on the radio, she didn't embarrass herself by mixing Monteverdi's Ohimé, ch'io cado with jazz improvisation. And even in this concert some ciaccona's were performed in a way which cast doubt about how seriously historical data are taken by Ms Pluhar (although these ciaccona's were by far not as tasteless as the 'jazzy' Monteverdi).

From a perspective of historical performance practice one is in safer hands with Fabio Bonizzoni and his ensemble La Risonanza, who have given some memorable performances in past editions of this festival. It wasn't different this time, when they shed light on Alessandro Grandi, who has the bad luck of being a contemporary of Monteverdi, and as a result of being almost completely overshadowed by the Venetian master. From the small number of recordings of his music it is easy to conclude how unjust the negligence of his oeuvre is.

His qualities were demonstrated by a piece like the sacred concerto O vos omnes, and the fact that exactly this work has been recorded as far back as in the 1970's by both Paul Esswood and James Bowman is no coincidence. Its highly emotional text (part of the Improperia for Holy Week) is set in a very expressive manner, and that was realised well by soprano Emanuela Galli. The tenor Giuseppe Maletto gave fine performances too, but in the pieces for two voices the balance between the singers was less than ideal, as Ms Galli tended to overpower her colleague. One of the interesting features of this concert was the inclusion of some secular works, whereas the recordings of Grandi's music concentrate on his sacred works. At least I'm not aware of any secular piece by Grandi being recorded yet. It is time his oeuvre is going to be explored extensively.

The vocal music of the seicento is less well-explored than the instrumental music, for whatever reason. In most concerts the vocal items are alternated with instrumental pieces. Many of these are rather familiar, and so are the composers, like Marini, Castello, Uccellini and Fontana. These also appeared on the programme with instrumental music by Concerto Italiano, directed by Rinaldo Alessandrini. But the players managed to bring some less well-known items like the two pieces by Tarquinio Merula (La Strada and Chacona) and the Sonata sopra Fuggi dolente core by Marini. Interesting in this programme was the addition of some later works by Domenico Gabrielli and Giovanni Bononcini, showing the changing style in instrumental music during the 17th century. The members of Concerto Italiano gave excellent performances throughout, showing that these pieces are more than virtuosic show-cases, but are strongly influenced by the vocal music of the period.

Part Three

"La Lira Armonica": GM Bononcini, Colombi, Gabrielli, Uccellini, Vitali
Ensemble Aurora/Enrico Gatti
Carlo Gesualdo: Madrigals
La Venexiana/Claudio Cavina
"Musica Vulcanica"
Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam/Harry van der Kamp
Girolamo Frescobaldi et al: Keyboard Works
Benjamin Allard, harpsichord
Bernardo Storace: Keyboard Works
Kris Verhelst, harpsichord
Giovanni Gabrieli, Girolamo Frescobaldi: Organ Works
Liuwe Tamminga, organ
"Venetian Keyboard Music": Cavazzoni, Fogliano, Merula, Picchi et al
Fabio Bonizzoni, harpsichord
Giovanni Gabrieli: Polychoral motets, toccatas, canzonas & sonatas
Choeur de Chambre de Namur, La Fenice/Jean Tubéry
Johann Stadlmayr, Giovanni Valentini: Sacred Works
Concerto Palatino/Bruce Dickey
Alessandro Stradella: San Giovanni Battista, oratorio in 2 parts
Lavinia Bertotti (Madre di Herodiade), Roberta Mameli (Herodiade), soprano; Andrea Arrivabene (San Giovanni Battista), alto; Luca Dordolo (Consigliero), tenor; Matteo Bellotto (Herode), bass
Ensemble Aurora/Enrico Gatti
Marco Marazzoli: La Vita humana overo Il trionfo della piet�, dramma musicale in a prologue and 3 acts
Claire Lefilliâtre (Vita humana), Camille Poul (Aurora, Innocenza), soprano; Isabelle Druet (Colpa), mezzosoprano; Jean-François Lombard (Intendimento), tenor; Arnaud Marzorati (Piacenza), bass
Le Choeur de Chambre de Rouen, Le Poème Harmonique/Vincent Dumestre; stage director: Benjamin Lazar

Whereas Concerto Italiano presented a cross section of the music for one and two violins in Italy in the 17th century, the Ensemble Aurora, directed by Enrico Gatti, concentrated on music written in Modena, at the court of the Estes. The key figure here was Marco Uccellini, and Gatti and his colleagues shed light on his opus 3 and opus 4, which contain sonatas and arias which are variations on popular songs and themes by other composers. In addition two pieces by Uccellini's pupil Giuseppe Colombi were played as well as compositions by Giovanni Battista Vitali and Giovanni Maria Bononcini were played. Both Vitali and Bononcini played an important role in Modena after Uccellini's departure to Parma. Interesting here as well as in the concert by Concerto Italiano was to note the development of the sonata during only a couple of decades. The programme was played very well, and the players turned out to be not bad singers at all, when they sang some of the tunes which Uccellini's variations were based upon. The cellist Gaetano Nasillo deserves to be specifically mentioned as he gave an excellent performance of a sonata for cello and bc by Domenico Gabrielli.

The madrigal was one of the most loved genres in Italy in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It was mainly due to the shift from prima to seconda prattica that around the middle of the 17th century the madrigal died out. Alessandro Scarlatti was one of the last composers of fame who composed some madrigals. Two ensembles which pay much attention to the Italian madrigal were invited to perform during this year's festival. The Italian ensemble La Venexiana, directed by Claudio Cavina, concentrated on Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa, with madrigals from his fourth and fifth book. The programme showed how Gesualdo's style became more personal and rather strange - the fact that he published the fifth book himself rather than looking for a commercial publisher was perhaps due to the fact that he realised his madrigals were difficult to understand for the public at large. La Venexiana has made several recordings with Gesualdo's madrigals, and the experience of the five singers showed in that they gave absolute convincing accounts of the pieces on the programme. Only the slight vibrato of tenor Giuseppe Maletto was sometimes a little disturbing. Also interesting the addition of madrigals by Luzzaschi and Nenna, who both came into contact with Gesualdo, and whose madrigals also make extensive use of chromaticism, although not as frequently as Gesualdo in his later period.

Even more difficult to understand were the madrigals on the programme of the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam, directed by Harry van der Kamp. He called the programme 'Musica Vulcana', as the composers of these madrigals came from southern Italy, in the surroundings of volcanos Vesuvius and Edna. The composers represented are mostly unknown to modern audiences, and some of them hardly anything is known about. Scipione Lacorcia, Giuseppe Palazzotto di Tagliavia, Francesco Genuino, Ettore de la Marra, Crescentio Salzilli, Giovanni del Turco and Diego Personè had all become acquainted with the music of Gesualdo, and followed in his footsteps. Some of them even went much further in the use of dissonances, well into the realm of a kind of a-tonality. In fact, this music is so far off the mainstream of the time that Harry van der Kamp labels its style as terza prattica. The madrigals performed at the concert are more interesting than nice to listen to. Probably those in the audience who like to listen to modern music would have enjoyed them more than I did. That doesn't take anything away from the Gesualdo Consort which gave absolutely perfect performances. Harry van der Kamp said somewhere during the concert that he and his colleagues believe in this music, and that certainly showed. This event was a valuable addition to the theme of the festival in that it filled in some blank spaces in our knowledge of the seicento.

A festival devoted to Italian music of the 17th century has to give attention to keyboard music as well. Experiments in styles and musical forms as well as temperament and harmony were features of the keyboard music of the time. The central figure in the series of concerts on harpsichord and organ was Girolamo Frescobaldi. His influence was widespread in Italy and far beyond. In his recital the young French harpsichordist Benjamin Allard gave an overview of the music by Italian and foreign composers influenced by Frescobaldi. In addition to pieces by Frescobaldi himself he played compositions by Michelangelo and Luigi Rossi, the German composers Johann Caspar Kerll and Johann Jakob Froberger and the Frenchman Louis Couperin, who was influenced by Frescobaldi through his friend Froberger. Allard gave good performances, but to me his playing seemed a little too mechanical, with few breathing spaces.

The Belgian harpsichordist Kris Verhelst is much more communicative, not only in her contact with the audience, but in particular in the way she handles the music she is playing. She gave brilliant performances of music by Bernardo Storace, about whose life and career very little is known, but whose music is not only of high quality, but also remarkable in his mixture of North- and South-Italian and even Spanish influences and his dealing with harmony. Some of his works are very virtuosic, in particular the Passagagli and the Ciaccona. But the more 'conventional' pieces like a toccata, a corrente and a recercar was equally good to listen to.

Frescobaldi was also one of the two composers Liuwe Tamminga, one of the organists of the San Petronio in Bologna, played in his recital devoted to organ music of the seicento. A programme like this causes a problem in that Utrecht doesn't have an organ that is ideally suited to this kind of repertoire. The programme was played on the cabinet organ and the large organ of the Geertekerk. They date from the 18th and early 19th century respectively, and were considered to be best able to realise the sound of a 17th-century organ. Liuwe Tamminga was a knowledgeable guide through the music by Frescobaldi and Giovanni Gabrieli, and he certainly played very well, but there is still a gap between the interpretation on these two organs and on a real Italian organ of the early 17th century, not only in regard to registration, but also temperament.

Giovanni Gabrieli was also paid tribute to by Fabio Bonizzoni in his harpsichord recital, which was concentrating on some of the earliest keyboard music in Italy. Bonizzoni started with pieces by Giacomo Fogliano (1468 - 1548) and Marc'antonio Cavazzoni (c1490 - c1560). Other composers in the programme were Claudio Merulo, Giovanni Picchi, Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, Tarquinio Merula and Andrea Cima. Keyboard pieces by these composers are relatively seldom played, so it was an important contribution to the picture of the seicento this festival tried to sketch. Bonizzoni showed a wide variety of musical forms, like the toccata, diminutions on madrigals, canzonas and ricercares, excellently played on a beautiful Italian harpsichord from the collection of his teacher, Ton Koopman, whose influence is easy to detect, both in Bonizzoni's interpretations and his manner of playing.

Giovanni Gabrieli is mainly known for his sacred music, a large part of which is written in the cori spezzati technique, in which the parts are divided over two to four vocal and instrumental choirs. Jean Tub�ry had put together a programme with music which could have been performed during a festive procession intended to confirm the power of Venice and its Doge. A mixture of vocal and instrumental pieces was sung and played by the Choeur de Chambre de Namur and Jean Tubéry's own ensemble La Fenice in the large Jacobikerk, the perfect venue for this kind of repertoire. In between some gregorian chants were sung, and these were the real disappointments of the performance, as they were sung with a kind of old-fashioned solemnity. The instrumentalists played very well, and the choir sang also quite well. It turned out be rather difficult to keep all participants together and the large acoustics of the church caused also some problems. But one has to assume it wasn't that much different in the San Marco in Venice. As good as the concert was I still missed something that could have emulated performances like this in the past by the Gabrieli Consort & Players.

Concerto Palatino, directed by Bruce Dickey, played a programme with music by composers who worked in Austria and were under the influence of Giovanni Gabrieli. One of them was Johann Stadlmayr, born in Bavaria, who worked the largest part of his life in Innsbruck. Although he never was a pupil of Gabrieli he mastered the Venetian polychoral style very well, as his works performed by Concerto Palatino impressively showed. The main work was the Missa V a 12 super Bone Iesu, whose cantus firmus is a motet by Alessandro Grandi, which was also performed during the concert. The other composer on the programme was Giovanni Valentini. It seems he, unlike Stadlmayr, was a pupil of Gabrieli. He worked as organist at the royal court in Poland and later as Kapellmeister at the imperial court in Vienna. He once composed a piece for seven choirs, but the music at this concert was a little more modest: some instrumental canzonas and a 16-part motet on a German text. The Concerto Palatino is specialised in this kind of repertoire, and that guaranteed a performance which revealed all the splendour and magnificence this music contains. It was a sheer delight to hear the instrumentalists on cornetts and trombones, with additional two violins, violone, theorbo and organ. Bruce Dickey had brought together a fine group of singers, with the likes of Susanne Ryd�n, Monika Mauch, Marnix De Cat, Charles Daniels and Harry van der Kamp, whose voices blended very well with the instruments, especially important as these are ensemble pieces, not music for voices with instrumental accompaniment. The Cathedral, in which the concert took place, has exactly the right reverberation to make this music blossom.

Much later in the 17th century Alessandro Stradello composed his oratorio San Giovanni Battista, about St John the Baptist, who is decapitated by King Herod at the instigation of his daughter Salome (called Herodiade in the oratorio). The oratorio was written for the Roman fraternity of the Florentines, whose patron was St John the Baptist. This work is just as dramatic as an opera and concentrates on Salome and her father rather than on St John and his fate. This oratorio was very popular in Stradella's time, and it is still one of his best-known works. It has been recorded a number of times, but those I know sound pale in comparison with the very dramatic performance by the Ensemble Aurora, directed by Enrico Gatti. In particular the soprano Roberta Mameli gave a splendid interpretation of the role of Salome/Herodiade. Also very good was Andrea Arrivabene in the role of St John the Baptist. I didn't particularly like Luca Dordolo, whose singing lacked subtlety. Better was Matteo Bellotto, although he hasn't exactly the most beautiful voice I have ever heard. He also had some trouble with the lowest notes in his part. But on the whole I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, and it is a big shame this concert wasn't recorded by Dutch radio.

For a long time Stradella was part of the court of Queen Christina of Sweden, who lived in Rome after her conversion to Catholicism. When she arrived in Rome in 1655 the whole winter season circled around what was considered a great victory of the Counter Reformation. The opera season was called carnavale della regina and on 31 January the dramma musicale La Vita humana overo Il trionfo della piet� was performed in the best theatre of the city, the Teatro alle Quattro Fontane in the palace of the Barberini family, one of the richest families of Rome. The libretto was written by Cardinal Giulio Rospigliosi, the music by Marco Marazzoli (c1602 - 1662), an ordained priest who was a musician at the court of the Barberini's. This piece is in the tradition of the moral plays which goes back to the Middle Ages. The first large-scale composition of this kind is Emilio de' Cavalieri's La rappresentazione di anima e di corpo. It is about a human being (Vita humanita) who has to make a choice between good and evil. The choice is summed up by two slogans of Innocenza (innocence) and Colpa (guilt) respectively: "piace se lice" (what is allowed, gives pleasure) and "lice se piace" (what gives pleasure, is allowed). Vita humanita gives in to the temptations of Colpa, who - with the help of Piacere (pleasure) - is even able to convert Intendimento (insight, reason) to her side. In the third act Innocenza is able to bring Vita humanita and Intendimento to their senses, and at the end Colpa and Piacere acknowledge their defeat and return to hell. Vita humana, Innocenza and Intendimento sing: "Whoever follows true grace, which calls the souls to Heaven, enjoys eternal peace".

Le Poème Harmonique performed this work in semi-scenic manner, with a very sober staging, but in a dark concert hall, illuminated which was only illuminated by candles on the stage, and with costumes. One of the ensemble's main assets is its determination to use baroque gestures, and to follow the way of acting of the baroque era, which means that the protagonists speak to the audience rather than each other, and don't move very much around. These are things one has to learn to understand, just as one has to learn to understand the musical language of the 17th century to interpret a composition like this. Like two years ago, when Le Poème Harmonique performed Lully's Le bourgeois gentilhomme in a fully staged version, the ensemble demonstrated convincingly that this way of performing dramatic works of the baroque era doesn't need to be an academic affair at all. It fact, I believe this style of performing baroque music theatre is much more eloquent than any modern staging and acting. The singers did a very good job, although the tenor Jean-François Lombard had some problems in shifting from his chest to his falsetto register. The fine cast received excellent support from the instrumentalists.

For me this was the last concert in this year's festival and I was happy to say goodbye to the festival with such a fine event.
Let me sum up my impressions. The choice of the seicento as theme of this edition of the festival, celebrating its 25th anniversary, was an excellent one. The Italian music of the 17th century has a wide variety of musical styles and genres to offer, and the programme showed there is still a lot to discover. In fact, I believe there is enough to return to this theme in a couple of years time. It is perhaps the second half of the 17th century, the time of Alessandro Scarlatti, which deserves to be explored more extensively. And there are composers to be discovered as well, Alessandro Grandi, for instance.

The general level of the performances was very good. As one may gather from what I have written only one performance was really disappointing. I have to add a note of caution, though. I have been selective in my choice of concerts, and two of the concerts I probably would be pretty negative about took place on Sundays. As I don't attend events on Sundays I missed them, but I'm pretty sure I had skipped them if they had taken place on other days of the week. Both were given by L'Arpeggiata, which was the 'ensemble in residence'. It is a shame its director, Christina Pluhar, feels the need to treat early music not quite seriously by mixing it with music or styles of interpretation which don't fit. If one really believes in the strength of the repertoire one is performing and one's own interpretation there is no need to compromise or add elements of doubtful character. I am absolutely convinced that the future of early music is only safe when performers try to obey to the spirit and the taste and manners of the period they are dealing with. Any performance which incorporates practices which cannot be justified on the basis of historical sources undermines the right of existence of the early music movement, and of this Holland Festival Early Music.

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Johan van Veen (© 2006)

Concert reviews