musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

Holland Festival Early Music Utrecht 2007

Part One   Part Two   Part Three

Part One

"Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt"
Trinity Baroque/Julian Podger
25 August, Cathedral [Domkerk]

"Meine Freundin, du bist schön"
Netherlands Bach Society/Jos van Veldhoven
26 August, Cathedral [Domkerk]

"Lamentations from Germany and Austria"
Christine Esser (soprano), Orpheon Consort/José Vázquez
26 August, Pieterskerk

"Jacob van Eyck: Konstelyk en lieffelyk gefigureert"
Peter van Heyghen (recorder), Kris Verhelst (harpsichord)
26 August, Auditorium University [Academiegebouw]

"Der Gooden Fluyt-hemel"
The Royal Wind Music/Paul Leenhouts
26 August, Jacobikerk

"German songs from the late 18th century"
Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano)
26 August, Ottone

The opening concert was meant as a kind of preparation to what is the main theme of this year's festival: Dietrich Buxtehude. Apart from two organ pieces by Buxtehude himself, vocal works by Heinrich Schütz and Johann Sebastian Bach, his main predecessor and successor respectively as composers of religious music in Germany, were programmed. In between some chorales were sung and a sacred song by Georg Böhm, one of Bach's teachers. The British ensemble Trinity Baroque had put together this programme quite nicely, with a number of motets from Schütz' Geistliche Chormusik embracing Bach's motet Jesu, meine Freude. The performances weren't that bad, considering the fact German is not their native tongue and British performers have always some kind of trouble with German music. But unfortunately they weren't very good either. It has to be said that I wasn't sitting very suitably: the first row, very close to the ensemble, is not the best spot to hear the ensemble as a whole. As a result I heard a number of single voices, which revealed some shortcomings, like a not always good pronunciation of the German language and a lack of blending, for instance because of the vibrato of some of the singers. In Bach's motet Jesu, meine Freude there were some strange decisions regarding dynamics and tempo and the pronunciation problems were all too obvious. The ensemble has recorded Bach's motets for Raumklang - why a German label is recording these works with a British ensemble is beyond me. Julian Podger sang Schütz's sacred concerto O süßer, o freundlicher not too badly, but there was a lack in articulation and dynamic accentuation of single words, and the ornamentation was rather inconsistent. The only non-British member of the ensemble, the German soprano Christine Maria Rembeck, sang Böhm's sacred song Trostesvolle Gnaden so much better in every respect. It's just a shame she obviously isn't able - or not in the position - to learn her colleagues how to sing German music appropriately.

In comparison the concert on Saturday night by the Netherlands Bach Society was a whole lot better, although there were some loose ends. The programme centred around the Song of Songs. It started with Schütz' motet Stehe auf, meine Freundin and ended with Johann Sebastian Bach's wedding cantata Der Herr denket an uns (BWV 196). Like the motet by Schütz Georg Böhm's cantata Mein Freund ist mein is written for two four-part ensembles of voices and instruments. But here four solo voices have a stanza to sing, alternated by a returning ritornello. The central text: "Mein Freund ist mein, und ich bin sein" (My friend is mine and I am his) returns time and again in all stanzas as well as in the opening and closing choruses. It showed the great qualities of Georg Böhm, whose sacred cantatas are not very well-known. The soloists gave good performances as well as the ensemble as a whole, although alto Marc Chambers was a kind of weak spot - litterally, as his voice is rather weak. That was especially problematic in Johann Christoph Bach's wedding cantata Meine Freundin, du bist schön. The two main singers here were the soprano Johannette Zomer and the bass Harry van der Kamp, who replaced Bas Ramselaar, who was announced. Ms Zomer gave a convincing performance, although I still have some problems with her singing, as sometimes the old vibrato habits creep in and in the highest register she tends to sing too loud. That is also a habit of tenor Marcel Beekman, who had to sing a couple of duets with poor Marc Chambers, who was no match. Harry van der Kamp was his brilliant self, singing and acting with great conviction and authority. I'm not sure the effects on "werdet trunken" (get drunk) were what the composer had in mind, in particular as it is very questionable whether the Biblical term "drunk"- if used in a positive sense - means the same as when we use it. But that doesn't take anything away from the quality of this performance. Buxtehude couldn't be absent, and although his cantata Drei schöne Dinge sind is based on Jesus Sirach, one of the Apocrypha, thematically it well fit into the programme. It is written for soprano and bass and got a fine performance from Johannette Zomer and Harry van der Kamp, although here the balance between the two singers was less than ideal, Ms Zomer tending to dominate. The concert ended with Bach's cantata, which is rather short, but was a nice conclusion of a fine concert.

A late night concert by the Orpheon Consort, directed by José Vázquez, also contained one piece by Buxtehude: the Klaglied 'Muß der Tod denn auch entbinden', a lamento on the death of his father. Although only three stanzas were performed the deeply moving character of this work came out very well, also thanks to the performance by the soprano Christine Esser and the members of the ensemble. The programme was devoted to lamentos from Austria and Germany, in which often viole da gambas were used. Other examples were An Wasserflüssen Babylon by Franz Tunder and Aus der Tieffe rufe ich by Christoph Bernhard. Although she could have used less vibrato Ms Esser's interpretations were very moving. Two arias by Johann Josef Fux and Attilio Ariosti respectively were of a different nature: both secular, both on an Italian text, and both with very virtuosic and extended obbligato parts for viole da gamba. These were actually more interesting than the vocal parts, although that may be due to the performance: it seems Christine Esser felt less at home here than in the German pieces. José Vázquez and his colleagues were able to show their great skills and their fine historical instruments to great effect here. As a nice contrast two suites from Banchetto Musicale by Johann Hermann Schein and one suite from Samuel Scheidt's Ludi musici were performed, music influenced by the English consort music which was introduced in Germany by William Brade. Why Timothy Roberts had to switch from organ to harpsichord in the middle of two of these suites wasn't quite clear. The organ seemed to me more satisfying as foundation of the ensemble than the harpsichord.

The first weekend was also devoted to Jacob van Eyck (c1590-1657), the famous Dutch recorder player and composer of the 17th century. To pay attention to his art in this festival was very appropriate, as he lived and worked mainly in Utrecht. I attended two concerts which were part of this theme. First Peter van Heyghen and Kris Verhelst played music by Van Eyck and English virginalists. In his many variations Van Eyck was strongly influenced by the style of the English virginalists, and they often made use of the same material, in particular songs which were generally popular in the 17th century, often in the whole of Europe. Peter Van Heyghen played pieces by Van Eyck on recorder and did so quite well, although a little more imagination hadn't been amiss. Kris Verhelst gave fine performances of compositions by Sweelinck, Gibbons, Farnaby and Philips. It was an interesting programme, ending with the only piece in which both instruments played together, the Aria XIII sopra Questa bella sirena, a song Van Eyck also used for variations.

Quite unusual was another concert around Van Eyck. He often used material from polyphonic pieces of his time or the late 16th century. A number of these pieces were performed by The Royal Wind Music, an ensemble of 12 recorders from sopranino to sub-contrabass. Works by Adriaensen, Brade, Dowland and Mainerio and some anonymous pieces were played, as well as pieces originally written for keyboard (Sweelinck, Est-ce Mars) or voices (Sweelinck, Pseaume 134). But there were also pieces which Van Eyck didn't use or which were written well after his death. The last part of the concert was devoted to a sequence of settings of 'Vater unser im Himmelreich', from Valentin Schumann (c1520-after 1559) to Johann Sebastian Bach. The ensemble produced a gorgeous sound, and anyone who thought that if more than one recorder is played the result must be out of tune was proven wrong. There was an intriguing remark in the information about the ensemble: the subcontrabassrecorder is a recent model, drafted after renaissance principles. Does this mean such an instrument never existed in the 16th and early 17th century?

A wholly different kind of music was performed by the soprano Carolyn Sampson and Kristian Bezuidenhout on fortepiano. They performed German songs for voice and keyboard from the late 18th century. In particular interesting were the hardly-known composers with which the programme started: August Bernhard Valentin Herbing (1735-1766), Friedrich Gottlob Fleischer (1722-1806) and Christian Michael Wolff (1707-1789), who all in their very own way looked for an expression of the text, using varied forms and giving more prominence to the keyboard. In a way it was a shame only few songs of these composers were performed. Also on the programme three songs by Mozart which are well-known of course, and the programme ended with an Italian song by Schubert - not often performed, but hardly fitting into a programme of late-18th century songs. In between Kristian Bezuidenhout played a sonata by Georg Benda, a composer who deserves more attention as this sonata proved. On the whole I was a little disappointed by the performances. Kristian Bezuidenhout is a brilliant fortepiano player, but the choice of a (copy of a) Graf for the whole programme was a little unfortunate. Although it was a relatively early specimen, as it had no pedals, it seemed to me the full dynamic potential couldn't be used in Benda, for instance. Carolyn Sampson is much praised these days for her performances of early music, but I'm afraid I'm not very impressed. Her sometimes wide vibrato, in particular when she has to sing dramatic stuff and forte, is rather annoying and ugly. Her German pronunciation wasn't perfect either. It was mainly a concert with interesting ideas, but the way these were realised wasn't always really convincing.

Part Two

"Buxtehude, Weckmann, Theile, Becker"
27 August, Cathedral [Domkerk]

"Harpsichordists around Buxtehude"
Jan Katzschke (harpsichord)
27 August, Lutherse Kerk

"Tunder and Buxtehude in Lübeck"
Ensemble Clematis
28 August, Cathedral [Domkerk]

"Buxtehude and the stylus phantasticus"
Harmonie Universelle
28 August, Geertekerk

"Buxtehude: Music for ecclesiastical high feasts"
La Capella Ducale, Musica Fiata/Roland Wilson
28 August, Cathedral [Domkerk]

Buxtehude: Membra Jesu nostri
Miriam Meyer, Bettina Pahn, Bogna Bartosz, Marco van de Klundert, Klaus Mertens
The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra/Ton Koopman
29 August, Jacobikerk

"North-German composers around Buxtehude"
Kölner Akademie/Michael A. Willens
29 August, Augustinuskerk

"The Lübeck tablature of Dietrich Buxtehude"
La Suave Melodia/Pieter Dirksen
30 August, St Willibrordkerk

Buxtehude: Chamber music
Les Basses Réunis/Bruno Cocset

On Monday two other concerts were devoted to the world of Buxtehude. The first was concentrating on ensemble music, played on a rather unusual combination of instruments. The Caecilia-Concert consists of four instrumentalists: Fiona Rusell (cornett), Adam Woolf (trombone), Wouter Verschuren (dulcian) and Kathryn Cok (keyboard), and can be extended if needed. In the concert in the festival just a violin was added, played by Jonathan Guyonnet. Although Buxtehude has written his sonatas for violins and viole da gamba only, according to the ensemble composers didn't mind replacing one instrument by the other: the viola da gamba could be replaced by the trombone and the violin by the cornett, or the other way round. As a result we heard a sonata by Buxtehude, scored for violin, viola da gamba and bc with violin and trombone, and in sonatas by his contemporaries Theile, Weckmann and Becker the four instruments or some of them could be heard in several combinations. The Caecilia-Concert gave colourful and energetic performances, and the unusual combinations of instruments worked quite well. One can only admire the virtuosity of the players of instruments which are not generally considered suitable to play virtuosic and sometimes very fast passages, like here in a sonata by Buxtehude where the two melody parts were played on trombone and dulcian. The huge reverberation of the Cathedral caused some problems, in particular for those in the audience who were sitting at some distance from the platform.

For a long time Buxtehude was mainly known as composer of organ music. At some time his chamber music and his cantatas were rediscovered, but his works for harpsichord have never made it into the standard repertoire of keyboard players, even though some complete recordings have been available as long ago as about 30 years. Jan Katzschke devoted his recital to keyboard music around Buxtehude. Two of his own compositions for the harpsichord were played, the Toccata in G (BuxWV 165) and the Fugue in C (BuxWV 174). The latter is one of his better-known works, but mostly played on the organ. As it has no pedal part a performance on harpsichord is much more appropriate. About half of the programme was devoted to the keyboard works of Matthias Weckmann, who from 1655 until his death was organist at the St Jacobi in Hamburg, where he had one of the world's largest organs at his disposal. There is no proof that Weckmann and Buxtehude knew each other, but it is quite likely, and it is even possible that Weckmann was Buxtehude's teacher. Weckmann was well acquainted with musical developments around Europe, and like Buxtehude later in his Abendmusiken in Lübeck he performed that kind of music with his Collegium Musicum in Hamburg. Several influences can also be traced in his keyboard music, some specimen of which Katzschke performed. In addition suites by Froberger - who was a personal friend of Weckmann - and the rather unknown Christian Ritter were played. Katzschke gave fine performances, technically assured and with great sensitivity towards the contrasts in the music, reflecting the North-German stylus phantasticus.

That stylus phantasticus is also a feature of the ensemble music written in the northern part of Germany. Not only Buxtehude and Weckmann, but also Johann Adam Reincken was a representative of that style, as the Partitas for two violins and bc, published in 1688 under the title Hortus Musicus, show. The first Partita is by far the best-known, especially because Bach arranged some of its movements for harpsichord. This Partita was played by the Ensemble Clematis, and its harpsichordist, Leonarda Garcia-Alarcòn, performed Bach's arrangement. This was indicative of the programme, which consisted almost exclusively of pieces which are well-known, among them also Franz Tunder's sacred concertos An Wasserflüssen Babylon and Ach Herr, laß deine lieben Engelein, and Johann Christoph Bach's lamento Ach, daß ich Wassers g'nug hätte. One could argue this is almost inevitable when the historical context of Buxtehude's life and work is payed attention to, but I think ensembles should try to stay away from the obvious, in particular if an ensemble is relatively new and inexperienced. The standard, set by famous artists, is high, and Ensemble Clematis failed to emulate that standard by far. The first item on the programme, Buxtehude's Sonata in G, op. 1,2 (BuxWV 253), immediately showed its shortcomings: no contrasts, hardly any dynamic accents, little differentiation between good and bad notes and a generally colourless and unrhetoric style of playing. The sacred concertos were not very good either, partly because the Spanish soprano María Hinojosa Montenegro pronunciated the German texts pretty badly, but also because there was too little text expression, inconsistent and not always correct ornamentation and sometimes too much vibrato. A disappointing concert.

In the late night concert that same day the ensemble Harmonie Universelle showed how this repertoire has to be played. Daniel Deuter and Mónica Waisman (violin), Josh Cheetham (viola da gamba), Mónica Pustilnik (theorbo) and Philippe Grisvard (harpsichord and organ) started with the same Partita I as the Ensemble Clematis, but it seemed a completely different work. Here the true character of this piece was shown, thanks to the colourful playing of the strings, the strong dynamic accents, the excellent phrasing and articulation. The basic principle of the historical performance practice of music from the baroque era, music as speech ('Musik als Klangrede'), was a living reality here. If this is ignored this repertoire can become boring. Buxtehude's Sonata in d minor (BuxWV 257) contains many repeated notes, and without a differentiated interpretation like that of Harmonie Universelle this is just uninteresting and tiresome. Also on the programme some of the Partien for two violins and bc from Musicalische Ergötzung by Johann Pachelbel, which were also given fine interpretations. The last item was Pachelbel's Partie V, ending with an exciting ciacona. Just one critical remark has to be made. In recent years it seems to be fasionable, firstly to use a theorbo in the basso continuo almost in every single work, and secondly to use it as a kind of percussion instrument. Harmonie Universelle has fallen to that habit too. I don't like it nor do I see the reasons for it.

Some concerts become fixed in one's memory and one can remember them long after. Such a concert took place in the Cathedral, when La Capella Ducale and Musica Fiata performed some of Buxtehude's most colourful and brilliant cantatas, some of them in a pretty large scoring up until 24 vocal and instrumental voices. The opening work, the 24-part motet Benedicam Dominum, set the tone: brilliantly played and sung, but - more importantly - also overwhelming and moving. Especially impressive in this work the playing of the wind: cornetts, trumpets, trombones and dulcians. Interesting was the use throughout the concert of a dulcimer, which - according to Roland Wilson - was in vogue at the time. The programme had been well put together, showing the variety in musical forms Buxtehude has made use of. Some cantatas had the structure of a dialogue, in which mainly three soloists could be heard: the soprano Monica Mauch (who sang the chorales in Wo soll ich fliehen hin immaculately), the tenor Markus Brutscher and the bass Wolf Mathias Friedrich. The latter two gave a brilliant performance of Herr, ich lasse dich nicht, a dialogue between Jacob and God. In Mein Gemüt erfreuet sich musical instruments mentioned in the text are illustrated by the instruments, like dulcians, cornetts and recorders. A special effect was created by the stopped trumpets and trombones in the last cantata on the programme, Ihr lieben Christen, freut euch nun. The playing and singing of these ensembles was of the highest level. This kind of music is in their blood as this concert amply demonstrated. Simply everything was right: the natural speech-like articulation, the rhythmic flexibility, the dynamic contrasts, the blending of the voices, the strong delivery of the text. This concert definitely was the highlight of the festival so far.

A festival which is partly devoted to Buxtehude, can't be without his most famous vocal work, the Membra Jesu nostri. According to Ton Koopman, artist in residence of this year's festival, this work is in Buxtehude's oeuvre what the St Matthew Passion is in Bach's. It was he who performed this cantata cycle, with members of his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and five vocal soloists. There was no choir in this performance, in contrast to his first recording on Erato (with the Knabenchor Hannover). It will be interesting to see whether he is going to record it with one voice per part in his ongoing Buxtehude Edition. It seems to me the character of this work points into the direction of a performance with just five singers, but the disadvantage is that five singers don't necessarily make an ensemble. And that was definitely a problem in this performance. There was a lack of balance between the voices, with the soprano Miriam Meyer and the tenor Marco van de Klundert dominating the overall sound of the ensemble. The voices didn't blend very well either. On the whole it was a disappointing performance. Apart from the technical shortcomings I had liked a more intimate, more meditative approach. In order to fill the night two sonatas were added. As a result there was an interval in the middle of the cantata cycle, between cantatas 4 an 5, which was rather unlucky in my view. The sonatas were played well, but by far not as colourful and expressive as by Harmonie Universelle.

The blending of the voices was also a kind of a problem in the concert of the Kölner Akademie, which was devoted to sacred music by North-German composers around Buxtehude. The title was a little too ambitious, as only two compositions by colleagues were performed: Confitebor tibi, Domine, one of Johann Rosenmüller's settings of Psalm 110, and the Easter cantata Hemmet eure Thränenfluht by Nicolaus Bruhns. The programme started and ended with cantatas by Buxtehude. I wasn't very much impressed by either of the soloists - I liked the contralto and tenor most. Together the four singers didn't blend very well, although it improved during the concert. There was also an improvement in the interpretation. The first item, Buxtehude's cantata Nichts soll uns scheiden von der Liebe Gottes, was a little bland. The word 'nichts' (nothing) which is repeated many times during the cantata, should have been more emphasised, as this is belongs to the centre of the cantatas content: "nothing shall separate us from the love of God". Bruhns's cantata is a very impressive piece, in which the instruments illustrate the text. For instance, string chords, followed by a pause, depict the heaviness of the stone, used here as metaphor for the heaviness of man's sins. The instrumental parts were realised very well: the players gave splendid performances throughout. The last piece on the programme, Buxtehude's cantata Der Herr ist mit mir is also a very fine work, ending with an extended jubilation on the word 'alleluia'.

It is almost inevitable that some works of a composer to whom a substantial part of the festival is devoted, are performed more than once. In particular some of his sonatas were played in several concerts. The ensemble La Suave Melodia, for instance, played Buxtehude's Sonata in C (BuxWV 266) for two violins and bc, which members of The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra had played two days before as well. It has to be said that the lesser-known violinists of this ensemble, Rachael Beesley and Sophie Gent, gave a much more colourful and more dynamic performance than their more renowned colleagues. And their level of playing was indicative of the standard of the performances in that concert throughout. Pieter Dirksen had selected compositions from a tablature (known as A 373), which contains 20 vocal works and was probably put together under the composer's supervision. In particular cantatas scored for two sopranos and bass were selected, which were sung by Sara Jaeggi and Keren Motseri (soprano) and Frans Fiselier (bass). In particular the two sopranos have very fine voices, which are different in character, but nevertheless blend very well. All three singers excelled in delevering the text, which was clearly audible, even without textsheet, and in exploring the way Buxtehude has expressed the text in his music. For me this concert was another highlight in the festival, and I sincerely hope the ensemble is going to record this proogramme on CD.

In Buxtehude's chamber music the viola da gamba plays an important role. Apart from composing a sonata for viola da gamba and bc, he treated the instrument on equal terms with the violin(s) in ensemble sonatas. Bruno Cocset had programmed two sonatas for violin, viola da gamba and bc by Buxtehude, as well as the sonata for viola da gamba and bc, which he played on the cello piccolo. The writer of the programme notes states that the cello piccolo seems to be a typical German phenomenon, and that it is quite possible that it was used in this kind of music, when no viola da gamba was available, I wonder how often that may have happened, as the viola da gamba was one of the most important string instruments in Buxtehude's time in Germany. It seems to me rather a contrived argument to defend the replacement of the viola da gamba by the cello piccolo. Although Bruno Cocset played very well, the musical result didn't convince me either: in particular in the first item on the programme, the Sonata in g minor (BuxWV 261), the viola da gamba was no match for the violin, in contrast to the viola da gamba with its more penetrating sound. It was a little better in the Sonata in a minor (BWV 254) which closed the programme. In the solo pieces the replacement of the viola da gamba by the cello piccolo was less of a problem, not only in the sonata by Buxtehude, but also the Sonata in a minor by Johann Schenck. Violinist Riccardo Minasi gave a good performance - although techically not perfect - of a sonata by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer and harpsichordist Maude Gratton of a partita by Weckmann.

Part Three

"Dein edles Herz, der Liebe Thron"
Capella Angelica, Lautten Compagney/Wolfgang Katschner
1 August, Geertekerk

"Musicians at the Danish court"
31 August, Cathedral [Domkerk] "Bellum & Pax"
Capilla Flamenca/Dirk Snellings; Psallentes/Hendrik Vanden Abeele
28 August, Nicolaïkerk

"Poyphony for François I"
Huelgas Ensemble/Paul Van Nevel
27 August, Jacobikerk

Ortiz: Ad vesperas in omnibus festivitatibus beatae Mariae
Cantar Lontano/Marco Mencoboni
30 August, Cathedral [Domkerk]

"Musicians at the Danish court"
31 August, Cathedral [Domkerk]

"The virtuoso Graupner"
Les Idées heureuses/Geneviève Soly
31 August, Pieterskerk

"Canons and duets of the 18th century"
Musica ad Rhenum/Jed Wentz
31 August, Geertekerk

Telemann: 12 Fantasias
Jed Wentz (transverse flute)
30 August, Pieterskerk (chapel)

JS Bach: Suites for cello solo 4 - 6
Sigiswald Kuijken (viola da spalla)
27 August, Doopsgezinde Kerk

Ristori: I lamenti d'Orfeo
Lavinia Bertotti, Elena Cecchi Fedi (soprano)
Les Muffatti/Peter Van Heyghen
27 August, Nicolaïkerk

"A Mozart Academy"
Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano)
Freiburger Barockorchester/Petra Müllejans
31 August, Central Studios

"An Overture, a Concerto and a Symphony by Mr Van Beethoven"
Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano)
Orchestra of the 18th Century/Frans Brüggen
300 August, City Theatre [Stadsschouwburg]

"Symphonies for the drawing room"
Van Swieten Society/Bart van Oort
29 August, Ottone

"Figaro! Figaro!"
Nachtmusique/Eric Hoeprich
31 August, Ottone

Muffat, Corelli, Lully
Holland Baroque Society/Matthew Halls
1 September, Jacobikerk

"The virtuoso Graupner"
Ingrid Schmithüsen (soprano), Normand Richard (bass)
Les Idées Heureuses/Geneviève Soly
31 August, Pieterskerk

Vivaldi: La Senna festeggiante
Kerstin Avemo (soprano), Barbara Kozelj (contralto), Antonio Abete (bass)
B'Rock/Eduardo López Banzo
1 August, City Theatre [Stadsschouwburg]

During the last days of the festival I attended two more concerts which were part of the Buxtehude theme. The ensemble Clarino devoted its concert to musicians at the Danish court: John Dowland, Heinrich Schütz and Matthias Weckmann. These were all active during the reign of Christian IV (1577-1648), under whose rule Denmark experienced a kind of 'golden era' in the arts. Matthias Weckmann is assumed to have influenced Buxtehude. So programming his music as part of a Buxtehude celebration makes sense, but performing music by Dowland, just because he worked at the Danish court, is rather stretched, as Buxtehude very likely never heard his music. And who in the world has come up with the idea to put this concert in the Cathedral? William Carter played some of Dowland's compositions on the lute, but I wonder how much people further away than, say, the 10th row, will have heard. This concert should have taken place in the Geertekerk, for instance, which has far better acoustics for intimate music like this. It has to be said, though, that the concert was a big disappointment. The sonatas by Weckmann weren't played that well: there were technical shortcomings, but it was also boring and bland. Sonatas by Weckmann had also been played on Monday by the Caecilia-Concert, and they were much better. Even the songs by Dowland, sung by Philippa Hyde, were rather uninteresting and flat. The last piece in the programme, Meine Seele erhebt den Herren (SWV 344) by Schütz, was almost unrecognizable, due to the slow speed and illogical phrasing and articulation.

On Saturday the concert by the Capella Angelica and the Lautten Compagney, directed by Wolfgang Katschner, took place in the Geertekerk. This was another example of bad scheduling: the acoustics are too dry for the cantatas by Buxtehude these ensembles performed. This should have taken place in the Jacobikerk, for instance. Maybe there this concert had left a better impression than it actually did. The instrumentalists played well, with good dynamic shadings, although sometimes a little bland. But the main weakness was the vocal ensemble. It consisted of 10 singers: 4 sopranos, 2 altos, 2 tenors and 2 basses. It produced a nice sound, and phrasing and articulation were just what you would expect in German music. But there was a lack of dynamic contrasts and of text expression. Most singers also had to sing short solo parts, and these were mostly rather bland and uninteresting. This seems to me the problem of this ensemble: the singers don't have enough qualities as soloists to carry a performance. As a result the concert as a whole was pretty indistinctive and a bit dull.

One of the themes of the festival was the 'art of listening'. Its objective was to look critically at the way modern audiences are used to listen to music. In two concerts specific use was made of the venue where they took place. The Capilla Flamenca asked the audience to move around during a performance of liturgical music, centred around the famous song 'L'homme armé', which was frequently used as cantus firmus of polyphonic masses in the renaissance. According to Dirk Snellings, the director of the ensemble, people attending service during the renaissance used to move around during the mass. In a large church it matters from which spot one listens to the music. This concept may look interesting, there is every reason to question whether it makes sense, in particular because of the way it was put into practice. If the audience is expected to move around, then why are the ensembles doing the same? Is that also how it was done in the renaissance? And it seems to be a little inconsistent to "reconstruct", as it were, the listening habits of that time, without reconstructing the religious context in which it was heard. If the people were moving around during mass in the renaissance and today's audience is asked to do the same, then why isn't the liturgical music performed during a mass? Many people were listening to the music while sitting comfortably - or less so - at one spot. Many hundreds of people moving around in a church isn't possible anyway. The music by Josquin, Obrecht, De la Rue and Willaert was performed very well by the Capilla Flamenca, whereas Psallentes sung the plainchant. The performances were much more convincing than the concept of this 'art of listening'.

Another ensemble which was using the specific features of the church was Cantar Lontano, directed by Marco Mencoboni. The music they presented was rather unusual: Diego Ortiz (c1510-c1570) is one of the main composers of instrumental music of the Spanish renaissance. He is mainly known for his treatise Tratado del glosas, about the art of diminutions. His own compositions in that genre belong to the standard repertoire of gambists. So to hear a programme of music for the Vespers is rather surprising. But very good this music is, and it was very well performed by the ensemble. Like the Capilla Flamenca the singers of the plainchant were moving around the church, but here the audience was sitting. The balconies of the Cathedral were used to great effect, and Mencoboni needed some assistent conductors to pass on his directions to the singers and players who couldn't see him. This concept was convincingly realised and the performance made a great impression. The programme has been recorded on CD, but that can never deliver the specific characteristics of this performance.

Music from the same time was performed by the Huelgas Ensemble, directed by Paul Van Nevel. This time it was French music, both sacred and secular, connected to the court of François I (1494-1547), a member of the Valois dynasty. He wanted his court to compete with the courts of Rome and Florence. He also paid attention to the development of the musical climate at and around the court. The number of singers and musicians at court increased, Pierre Attaignant was given the privilege to print music and musicians were organised in ensembles of a specific character and function. The Huelgas Ensemble sang motets, mass sections and chansons by some well-known composers like Jean Mouton and Claudin de Sermisy, but hardly-known masters were also represented: Pierre de la Farge and Pierre de Villiers will have been new names for most members of the audience. And even De Sermisy is mainly known for his chansons, whereas his sacred music is seldom performed, like the Missa Quare fremuerunt gentes, from which the Agnus Dei was sung. The number of singers varied from four (one voice per part) to 13 (the whole ensemble). The intonation and the blending of the voices were immaculate as usual. A feature of Van Nevel's interpretations is also his use of dynamics, which is rather unusual in this kind of repertoire. The objective of this concert was to give an idea of music life at the court of François I. As a result secular and sacred music was performed in the same venue. One could argue that the chansons are better suited to a more intimate space. Even so there was enough differentiation between both kinds of repertoire. Another question mark regards the use of instruments: could it be that sometimes music at François' court was performed with instruments, like viols, playing colla parte or even replacing one or more voices?

The festival also contained a series with the title 'A solo': performances of music for a solo instrument, taking place at midnight. I was suprised that the two concerts I attended had a full house, although the venues were very different. There must have been about 200 hundred people or more in the Doopsgezinde Kerk (the Mennonite Church) for the concert by the Belgian violinist Sigiswald Kuijken on the viola da spalla. Although Kuijken has already given concerts on this instrument for some years now, and has used it in recordings of cantatas by Bach, the public at large isn't quite acquainted yet with this relatively unknown instrument. Kuijken was quite ambitious by programming no less than three of Bach's suites for cello solo (Nos 4 to 6). At first it threatened to become a deception, as Kuijken had serious trouble with his intonation and seemed to be rather out of sorts. But after a while he settled in and started to play with real conviction. The New Grove describes the viola da spalla as "an 18th-century name given to a bowed string instrument, possibly a cello or a smaller variant of it, played at shoulder height with the instrument held across the player's chest by a strap over the shoulder". The sound is more or less comparable to that of a viola, but then a little darker. I'm not sure whether this was the instrument Bach had in mind for these suites. But it was a fascinating experience, and especially the last suite was very well played by Sigiswald Kuijken. Hopefully he will find the opportunity to record them, so that everyone can hear and judge for himself. The concert ended at late as 1.30 a.m., but it certainly was worth it.

Another concert in this series took place in the much smaller chapel of the Pieterskerk: Jed Wentz played all twelve fantasias for transverse flute by Telemann. These fantasias are very popular among flute and recorder players, but it won't happen very often that they are all played at once during a concert. It is quite a challenge to play them all, requiring a high level of energy and concentration. But Jed Wentz impressively met the challenge and gave splendid performances. These fantasias consists of short movements, contrasting in tempo and character. These contrasts were worked out very well, and Wentz demonstrated an excellent understanding of the rhetorical figures Telemann makes use of. 12 Fantasias in a row seems a bit tedious, but in fact we got 12 short, engrossing stories, and Wentz proved to be a great storyteller.

Later that day Wentz returned to the platform with his ensemble Musica ad Rhenum. On the programme were canons and duets from the late 17th and the 18th century. The programme started and ended with sonatas by Locatelli, both canonical: the two upper voices follow each other closely, and treble and bass parts are written in strict canon. In between the 12e Concert from François Couperin's 'Les Goûts-Réünis', which is a duet between two bass instruments - played here on the viola da gamba and the cello - with contains much imitation between the two parts. Bernardo Pasquini wrote a collection of 'basso continuo sonatas' for two keyboards. Only the figured bass is given, which the players are supposed to realise, in addition to a melody part. And there was Telemann again, with two duets for two transverse flutes - no less engaging than the fantasias Jed Wentz played before. All members of the ensemble gave fine performances: Jed Wentz and Marion Moonen (transverse flutes), Cassandra Luckhardt (viola da gamba), Job ter Haar (cello), Michael Borgstede and Marijn Slappendel (harpsichord). It was a good example of creative programming.

The same could be said of the concert by Les Idées Heureuses, directed by Geneviève Soly, a Canadian harpsichordist who is fascinated by the music of Christoph Graupner. The whole programme was devoted to music by this German master, who is not fully ignored: in particular some of his orchestral suites are sometimes played. But he is definitely a composer who is still in the shadow of the masters of the German baroque, Bach and Telemann. In his time he had a great reputation, and the concert showed why. Whereas much music of the baroque era is regular in the sense that you often know what to expect, Graupner often goes into a whole new direction. Time and again he is surprising the audience by doing unexpected things, which makes his music very interesting to listen to. It is a composer one has to get used to, and fortunately Geneviève Soly and her colleagues were able to display his qualities. They played an Overture in E (in fact movements from two different overtures in that key) and a trio sonata which is perhaps not authentic, even if it is catalogued as a work by Graupner. The main work was the cantata Wo willst du hin, betrübte Seele, written for soprano, bass, strings and bc. Here again Graupner suprises the listener by the way he treats the conventional cantata form. The cantata begins with an aria for soprano - representing the soul - , which is repeated twice in the first half. Ingrid Schmithüsen gave a very expressive and moving interpretation, and was able to treat the same aria differently every time. The bass Normand Richard - singing the part of Jesus - was also fine in his recitatives and his only aria. The cantata ends with a lovely duet, where both voices blended well. Composers like Graupner, Fasch, Stölzel and Hertel could do with some special attention, which could put them out of the shadow of their contemporaries Bach and Telemann.

Far less creative was the programme of the Holland Baroque Society, a group of musicians who met in other orchestras in the Netherlands and links series of concerts with educational projects. During this festival it played twice: in Handel's oratorio Jephtha, which was performed on the first Sunday of the festival (which I have not attended), and in an orchestral programme in the Jacobikerk, directed by the British keyboard player Matthew Halls. Despite the unsuitable acoustics it was successful in showing its qualities, even though the programme consisted mainly of well-known pieces: Corelli's Concerto grosso in C, op. 6,10 and two suites by Georg Muffat. Less well-known is Lully's opera Psyché, from which an instrumental suite was played. The idea behind the programme was clear, though: Muffat as the composer who aimed at mixing the French and the Italian style. The orchestra played very well and, although existing just two years, has already developed into a very good ensemble, from which we will hear more for sure in the future.

Last year a staged production of Cavalli's opera L'Ipermestra was one of the main events of the festival. This year almost no theatrical music was performed. But two serenatas were programmed, one by Vivaldi and the other by Ristori. La Senna festeggiante was written by Antonio Vivaldi in 1725 to commemorate the restoration of the diplomatic ties between the republic of Venice and France. The characters are allegorical figures, who usually represent the personalities for which the serenata was written. In this case it was mainly king Louis XV who was honoured by the names of the allegorical characters La Virtù (virtue), L'Età dell'Oro (the golden era) and La Senna (the Seine). Serenatas were usually not staged, but that didn't hold back the Belgian baroque orchestra B'Rock from asking two directors to make a staged production. The objective was to turn the piece into a kind of horror movie. If that wasn't bad enough, the result was completely unintelligible and utterly tasteless. When afterwards one of the directors entered the platform to receive the applause of the audience he was practically booed off the stage, and rightly so. The production was an insult to the audience, and - what is worse - to Vivaldi. It almost overshadowed the generally good performances from the singers, Kerstin Avemo, Barbara Kozelj and Antonio Abete. The orchestra also played very well under the direction of Eduardo López Banzo. But singers and conductor should naver have gone along with this kind of garbage. Talking about the 'art of listening', sometimes it is better if you don't see anything, and just listen.

Much better was the performance of the serenata I lamenti d'Orfeo by the Italian composer Giovanni Alberto Ristori (1692-1753), who worked at the court in Dresden and became the assistent of Johann Adolf Hasse. This serenata was written in 1749 in honour of Maria Antonia Walpurgis (1724-1780), who in 1747 married Friedrich Christian, who was to become Elector of Saxony. She was a talented musician and composer and her qualities are praised in this serenata, scored for two sopranos (representing Orpheus and his mother Calliope) and orchestra. It was given a concertante performance by the orchestra Les Muffatti, directed by Peter Van Heyghen, which explored the quite colourful orchestration by Ristory very well. Lavinia Bertotti and Elena Cecchi Fedi also gave good accounts of their parts, in their arias as well as the dialogues. Here again we have a composer who deserves more attention than he has been given so far.

'The art of listening' was also the source of inspiration for a concert by the Orchestra of the 18th Century, conducted by Frans Brüggen. No programme was given, the programme sheet mentioned just 'an overture, a concerto and a symphony by Mr. Van Beethoven'. So it was up to the audience to discover what exactly was played. Most of them will have recognized the music: the Overture Coriolan, the Piano Concerto No 3 and the Symphony No 5. The acoustics of the City Theatre are pretty dry, but it turned out to be an advantage rather than a disadvantage, as all sorts of details were clearly audible which tend to get lost in a venue with more spacious acoustics. The performances were first-rate from start to finish. The overture received a brilliant sharp-edged performance and in the piano concerto Kristian Bezuidenhout was a most imaginative and creative soloist, although the cadenza in the first movement was far too long. And when a conductor is able to make an overworked symphony like the fifth sound like it was written yesterday, then that is quite an achievement. Frans Brüggen's health seems to be poor, but his spirit is lively as ever. It was one of the most memorable concerts of this festival.

Not very favourable were the acoustical circumstances for the special concert for the Friends of the festival by the Freiburger Barockorchester. The programme consisted of works by Mozart: the symphony No 40, the keyboard concerto in A (KV 488), three concert arias (sung by Carolyn Sampson) and the Fantasia for keyboard in c minor (KV 475). The latter piece was played by Kristian Bezuidenhout, who also was the soloist in Mozart's concerto. This was given an enthralling performance, but the acoustics didn't make it very pleasant to listen to. The concert was also part of the theme 'the art of listening', as it wanted to give some idea of how music in Mozart's time was presented to the audience. It started with just the first movement of the symphony, then two concert arias were sung, followed by the concerto. After the interval the remaining three movements of the symphony were played, followed by the keyboard fantasia and the concert closed with another concert aria. It is certainly an interesting experiment, but in my view not something we should try to copy. I also wonder whether the concept was worked out consistently: would the movements two to four of the symphony really be played at a stretch or would it be interspersed by a vocal or keyboard item again? And what about the piano concerto: was it played in Mozart's time without being alternated by other music?

In the late 18th and early 19th century the only way for many people to listen to the best music of their time was through arrangements and transcriptions. A huge number of this kind of pieces were made and published. Two concerts were devoted to that repertoire. Bart van Oort and his ensemble Van Swieten Society played the overture of Mozart's opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Haydn's Symphony No 101 in arrangements for keyboard, transverse flute and strings and in between Beethoven's own transcription for pianoforte, violin and cello of his Symphony No 2. The ensemble Nachtmusique played arrangements for wind instruments of overtures and arias from Mozart's opera Le Nozze di Figaro and Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia and Mozart's Quintet KV 407 in an arrangement for wind sextet by Johann André. Composers were not always happy with the arrangements, and it encouraged Beethoven to arrange his works himself, as his Symphony No 2. But some arrangements were very good, and Johann André's, for instance, were among them. These were two interesting concerts with a kind of repertoire that meets scepticism in our time, but these concerts showed that - if played well, and that was certainly the case here - these arrangements have qualities of their own. They are good additions to the repertoire of string and wind ensembles.

The concert with which the festival ended was devoted to Buxtehude again: sacred works were performed by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir with soloists, directed by Ton Koopman. The concert ended with a cantata by Bach. I have heard this concert on the radio, so I'm not in the position to give a definitive judgement, but my overall impression was that the performances of Buxtehude's works was mostly disappointing: some soloists - and some members of the choir - used too much vibrato and the blending of the voices wasn't great either. I don't think these performances were any better than that of Membra Jesu nostri by Koopman earlier in the festival.

Time to sum up. Let me first say that I am grateful for the choice of Buxtehude as 'composer in residence'. Most of his sacred works are hardly known, and this festival showed that there is no reason at all to neglect them. On the contrary: Buxtehude's sacred music is very important and of a remarkable and consistent quality. Hopefully the year of the commemoration of his death will change the treatment of these works and they will become part of the standard repertoire of vocal/instrumental ensembles. On the whole I am satisfied by the quality of the concerts I have heard. Most of them were of a good level, with some ups and downs. The ups are the concerts by La Capella Ducale & Musica Fiata, by La Suave Melodia and the Huelgas Ensemble. The downs are the performances by the Ensemble Clematis and Clarino. And I sincerely hope we will never see such garbage as Vivaldi's La Senna festeggiante again.
This year the festival was confronted with the specific problem that the Muziekcentrum wasn't available because of a major rebuilding which will take a number of years. It isn't easy to deal with the consequences, and it has to be said the direction has met this challenge admirably. But the relationship between music and space has been a problem for many years now. Too often concerts take place in venues which are simply not suitable to the kind of music played. And that not only spoils the enjoyment by the audience, but also undermines the performances and the way the music is appreciated. This is an issue which has to be dealt with.

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Johan van Veen (© 2007)

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