musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

"Charles IV and Charlemagne"
Tiburtina Ensemble/Barbora Kabátková
concert: May 6, 2022, Utrecht, Pieterskerk

Alcuin (c735-804): Summi regis archangele Michael; anon: Otep myrry; Notker (c840-912): Natus ante secula; plainchant: A solis ortu usque ad occidua; Ave, coronata; Ave, dei genitrix; Flos florum - Quae est ista; Francorum gemma Karolus; Gregorius presul meritis - Ad te levavi animam meam; In hac precelsa sollempnitate; In Karoli magni laude; In virtute tua Ihesu Christe - Laudate pueri Dominum; Lectio de vita Karoli magni; O quam felicis imperatorem memorie; O spes afflictis; Precinctus fortitudine - Jubilate Deo; Quare fremuerunt

Ivana Bilej Brouková, Tereza Böhmová, Renata Zafková, soprano; Hana Blažíková, Barbora Kabátková, soprano, harp; Daniela Cermáková, Anna Chadimová Havliková, Kamila Mazalová, contralto

Before the Reformation, all people in Europe belonged to the Christian Church. Its centre was Rome, but that did not implicate that the Church looked the same in all parts of the continent. There were quite some differences, for instance in the field of liturgy. Although Latin was the language of the Church, it was not pronounced the same way everywhere: the pronunciation in France and in Germany, for example, was very different. There was also quite some musical variation: even when the same texts were used, they could be sung on different melodies. In addition, there was variety in the way music was performed, which was partly influenced by traditional music.

One of the fruits of the dissemination of the revival of early music and historical performance practice is that ensembles from those parts of Europe that for a long time played a marginal role in the early music scene, are now very much part of it. They often don't confine themselves to the performance of 'mainstream' repertoire, but also explore their own musical heritage. One of those ensembles is the Tiburtina Ensemble, which performed in the Pieterskerk in Utrecht on 6 May. The same ensemble had performed there at the 2021 Festival Early Music Utrecht. In both concerts the ensemble focused on music from Central Europe, and in the concert which is the subject of this review, the programme was constructed around the figure of Charles IV (1316-1378). From 1347 until his death he was King of Bohemia, and from 1355 emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He resided in Prague and made it the capital of the empire. In 1348 he founded a university. He was very interested in music, but - as Barbora Kabátková explained in her programme notes, his musical taste was rather conservative. He preferred the music that had been handed over from tradition to developments that took place elsewhere. He was a great admirer of Charlemagne, and took care that the liturgy in honour of him took place in the Prague diocese.

The programme performed by the Tiburtina Ensemble was a mixture of plainchant and polyphony. It started with the earliest pieces which date from the time of Charlemagne. That part was particularly interesting as very few music of that period has been preserved. The opening work was a piece in honour of Pope Gregory (c540-604) who has given his name to what is generally known as 'Gregorian chant'. This piece was performed a capella, but in the next item, the sequence Natus ante secula, one of the few pieces whose composer is known (Notker, monk of the Benedictine abbey of St Gallen), the voices were accompanied by a harp. That was also the case in a number of other pieces, and the harp accompaniments were undoubtedly improvised by either Barbora Kabátková or Hana Blažíková.

Next followed several pieces about Charlemagne from Charles IV's time, such as a lesson (Lectio de vita Karoli magni), a responsory, Francorum gemma Karolus, and a sequence, In Karoli magni laude. Although the programme was in no way a kind of 'liturgical reconstruction', Psalm 112, Laudate pueri Dominum, was embraced by the antiphon connected to it, In virtute tua Ihesu Christe. The conductus Quare fremuerunt was the first polyphonic item. The responsory Letare pia mater aquensis is about the church of Aachen, the residence of Charlemagne. It was followed by the only piece in the vernacular, a so-called lai, a medieval song with a secular text. Unfortunately it was not explained why this piece was included in this programme of sacred music. It was sung by a solo voice with harp accompaniment, which is probably the common way such songs were performed in the Middle Ages.

Obviously, music in honour of the Virgin Mary could not be omitted, especially as Charles IV founded an Augustinian convent in Prague, whose main church he devoted to the Virgin and to Charlemagne. The motet Ave, coronate praises her as 'bride of God' and 'mother and queen of heaven'. This was another polyphonic item, in which several texts were sung simulataneously. After a setting of a verse from Psalm 99, we returned to Charlemagne with A solis ortu usque ad occidua, a Planctus de obitu Karoli: a lamentation on the death of Charlemagne, written shortly after the emperor's death, and again sung by a solo voice to the accompaniment of a harp. The sequence Summi regis archangele Michael is about the archangel Michael, whose feast was celebrated since the fifth century (and still was in Bach's time in Leipzig). This piece is from the pen of Alcuin, an Anglo-Saxon scholar, writer and poet. I would have liked some explanation of this, because in New Grove he is not mentioned as a composer. Then who wrote the music?

The programme ended with another piece in honour of Mary, Ave, Dei genitrix, again performed in polyphony, with harp accompaniment. It brought to a close a most fascinating concert, which shed light on the variety in the repertoire of the church of the Middle Ages. This kind of music is best performed by ensembles which are knowledgeable of their own tradition - which may still be alive, at least partially - and which have access to the sources. In this case, a large part of the music was taken from a Bohemian manuscript of the 14th century.

When I heard the Tiburtina Ensemble last year at the festival, I was very impressed, both by the music and the performances. In my review of the festival I expressed the hope to hear them again soon, and that wish came true on 6 May. My impressions of last year were confirmed. This is a top-class ensemble: one won't often hear such superb singing and such excellent voices, which blend perfectly. The singers showed a full command of legato, which is needed in this repertoire. They used the space very well in the interest of the music, and there was some nice harp playing by Kabátková and Blažíková.

It must have been a great satisfaction for the singers that their performances were received so well, and that such a large audience had found its way to the Pieterskerk. I hope to see and hear them soon again.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Concert reviews