musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

"The mythical paradise"
Ensemble Agamemnon/François Cardey
concert: Dec 17, 2019, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)

Samuel CAPRICORNUS (1628-1665): Adesto multitudo coelestis exercitus; Antonio DRAGHI (1634/35-1700): L'ingegno à sorte (Or à ubidir m'accingo); Johann Joseph FUX (c1660-1741): Sonata pastorale à 3 in F (K 397); Sonata pastorale à 3 in G (K 395); Christian GEIST (1640-1711): Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern; Tarquinio MERULA (1594/95-1665): Canzonetta spirituale sopra la Nanna; Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643): L'incoronazione di Poppea (Adagiati, Poppea); Melchior SCHILDT (1592/93-1667): Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein; Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672): Weihnachtshistorie (SWV 435) (Intermedium I); Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (c1620/23-1680): Pastorale; Sonata à 3 'Pastorale'

Alice Kamenezky, soprano; François Cardey, cornett; Anaëlle Blanc-Verdin, violin; Sarah Van Oudenhove, viola da gamba; Louis Capeille, harp; Kazuya Gunji, harpsichord, organ

In December, many concerts are given which are more or less connected to Advent and Christmas. Apart from the usual stuff, such as Bach's Christmas Oratorio and Advent cantatas and Handel's Messiah, it is sometimes possible to listen to less conventional repertoire. The Ensemble Agamemnon, founded in 2013 by François Cardey, made its debut in the Netherlands with a series of concerts under the title "The mythical paradise". That title was a reference to the baroque ideal of Arcadia: a world of shepherds and nymphs, living in harmony with nature. This inspired composers to write music of a pastoral nature, and here is the connection with Advent and Christmas. This kind of music could easily be used for the subject of the nativity of Christ, especially as the annunciation of his birth to the shepherds takes such a crucial place in the story of Jesus' birth.

The instrumental pieces had a specific pastoral character: two sonatas by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer and two by Johann Joseph Fux. Whether these were specifically intended for Christmas is hard to say. It seems quite possible that they were 'multifunctional', and could be performed both in a sacred and a secular context. After all, in their time there was no watershed between the two.

Most of the vocal items were part of what we call 'Christmas music'. The first was the Intermedium I from the Weihnachtshistorie by Heinrich Schütz. It describes how an angel tells the shepherds that Jesus is born and where they can find him. It was appropriately followed by an arrangement of a popular Christmas hymn, Ach, mein herzliebes Jesulein, by the little-known German composer Melchior Schildt, who is mainly known for his organ works; this is his only extant vocal composition.

Another popular hymn at the time was Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern. The image of the 'morning star' is clearly inspired by the story of the three wise men, coming from the East, to pay tribute to the new-born King, led by the unknown star they had observed. Christian Geist used it for a sacred concerto, in which the role of the voice is confined to the cantus firmus and the instruments add the polyphony.

The most famous piece in the programme was the Canzonetta spirituale sopra la Nanna by Tarquinio Merula. It is a lullaby, and as such part of a large repertoire which was particularly popular in the 17th century, both in sacred and in secular music. For the most part it is based on another common device of that time, the basso ostinato. However, the piece is pervaded by references to Jesus' Passion, and that lends this piece a unique character.

One of the lesser-known names in the programme was Samuel Capricornus, who for the last eight years of his life worked in Stuttgart. In Adesto multitudo coelestis exercitus the heavenly armies are urged to sing for Jesus and proclaim that he is the hope for mankind. This sacred concerto was appropriately followed by one of the pastoral sonatas by Schmelzer, as he worked at the court in Vienna, where Capricornus also stayed for some time.

The programme then turned to the secular, as we heard excerpts from Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea and from L'ingegno à sorte, a serenata by Antonio Draghi, performed in Linz (Austria) in 1680. The latter is another little-known composer, whose large oeuvre is hardly known. The excerpt concerned an aria by one of the nymphs, explaining that she does not love Fileno.

The concert ended with another sacred work, referring to Herodes' reaction, when he learns that the wise men have not informed him, where they found Jesus, as he had asked them. This leads to the Massacre of the Innocents, as it is traditionally called. In Crudelis Herodes by Maurizio Cazzati, Herodes is asked why he is so afraid of God's coming as a King. It ends with a tribute to Jesus, who has appeared to the gentiles.

Obviously I had never heard the Ensemble Agamemnon, which specializes in 17th-century vocal and instrumental music from Italy and the Holy Roman Empire. With its line-up of soprano, cornett, violin, bass viol, harp and keyboard, it is well suited to perform this kind of repertoire. Overall I quite enjoyed the performances during this concert. I can't remember having heard Alice Kamenezky before; I like her voice and her engaging performances. There was some nice dynamic differentiation and stylish ornamentation. Her performance of Merula's Canzonetta spirituale was very expressive and made a strong impression. Now and then she used a little more vibrato than she should have. The instrumental playing was excellent. There was just one issue. The balance within the ensemble seemed less than ideal as the cornett was a bit too dominant, whereas the violin was not always clearly audible. However, this may well have been the effect of my seating, on the right side of the hall, where Cardey was also standing. Even so, I am not sure that in all the pieces the cornett was the most appropriate choice for one of the instrumental parts. In some cases two violins may have been a more satisfying option.

This concert was a most pleasant acquaintance with an interesting ensemble, which hopefully will return in the near future.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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