Ambronay 2022

Regular visitor, Brian Robins, has sent THIS REPORT from the French festival (the link opens a six-page PDF file).


Early Nights in Orkney

The St Magnus Festival 2022

It is such a delight to be able to attend a live festival these days, and a particular pleasure to be back at a full-scale St Magnus Festival in the Orkney Islands. Any concerns that two years of limited performance opportunities might have dulled the edge of the performers were quickly dispelled by the two youthful ensembles presenting three excellent concerts of early music.

My St Magnus Festival opened significantly with the strains of Sibelius, played by the RSNO, but the first of my three concerts with HIP elements was given by Tenebrae in St Magnus Cathedral. Directed by Nigel Short, the six singers presented a jubilee programme featuring music from the times of Elizabeth I and II. The wonderfully focussed sound simply glowed in the cathedral’s rich acoustic, and a first half of Lassus, Bennet, Gibbons, Tallis, Weelkes, Morley and Byrd was beautifully engaging. The Gloria and Agnus Dei from Byrd’s four-part Mass were particularly impressive, and clever use of the two soprano and bass voices allowed for alternating solo and tutti textures. If the two madrigals from The Triumphs of Oriana sounded a little breathless, this was perhaps partly due to the acoustic. I applaud the idea of dispensing with applause until the end of the entire programme, allowing this magnificent music to have a cumulative impact, although the odd decision to sound out the notes on a piano seemed curious – surely some more unobtrusive way of establishing pitch could have been devised?

The second half of the concert consisted of music from the lifetime of our own monarch, although My soul, there is a country, probably the finest of Sir Hubert Parry’s remarkable Songs of Farewell which concluded the concert predates even her long life. Walton’s Set me as a seal underline this composer’s underrated skills as a composer of a capella choral music, while Britten’s Dances of Gloriana from the Masque at the opening of Act II of his opera were sung with poise and elegance, with the group’s director contributing vocally at one point to allow for a four-part male voice texture. Two madrigals by Morten Lauridsen, more harmonically edgy than his poignant church music, acknowledge a debt to Carlo Gesualdo, and it was nice to return to the rich and beautifully crafted world of Edwardian harmony for the concluding Parry. In response to a thoroughly well-earned ovation from a substantial audience, the group performed Evening Prayer by Joanna Marsh, a hauntingly beautiful encore – as Nigel Short pointed out, ending a lunchtime concert with an evening prayer may seem perverse, but the Cathedral’s timeless ambience and Orkney’s late June ‘simmer dim’ rendered such niceties moot.

The four-part recorder consort Palisander provided the balance of the early fare this year, and their first concert, You make me feel like dancing, also in St Magnus Cathedral was a superbly slick production featuring music from the Renaissance and more recent times, as well as song, dance and narration. The four young ladies played a wide range of Renaissance and modern recorders from contrabass to garkleinflöte with awesome technical virtuosity and a stunning degree of ensemble, and their enthusiasm for the music was infectious. In the course of their two performances, they gave clear and accessible explanations of their instruments, while the talents of Miriam Monaghan as arranger of much of the music were another decisive factor in the success of both programmes.

The contemporary music, some of which was composed specifically for the group, such as Delyth Naya’s impressively inventive Kagura Suite and Jacob Fitzgerald’s mesmerising Murmuration, made stunningly original use of the recorders and their articulation. The Renaissance music was also exquisitely played. I have some reservations about the group’s penchant for presenting isolated random phrases staccato – we have little idea as to how contemporary performers approached the music, but by contrast the sombre dignity of Pallisander’s no-nonsense account of Thomas Tomkins’ Pavan in F Major was simply spell-binding. Subtle ornamentation enhanced all of these performances, while veritable blizzards of virtuoso passagi, such as those in Merulas’s Canzon Seconda, were simply astonishing.

The group’s second concert, an afternoon event in the atmospheric 18th-century ‘fisher kirk’ of St Peter’s Sandwick spectacularly set on the shore of the Bay of Skaill proved an equally stimulating delight entitled Double, double toil and trouble and incorporating things supernatural. In the smaller acoustic of the kirk, it was easier to hear the individual timbres of the instruments, and again the show flowed with a wonderful lucidity and consummate virtuosity. Once more Miriam Monaghan’s skills as arranger proved crucial, making available a rich variety of musical styles. While a slightly arch rendition of Vivaldi’s Concerto La Notte found me writing ‘poor Vivaldi’ in my programme, other Baroque reworkings including a 7-part account of Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata proved more convincing. Tenebrae had relied on their director to increase the number of parts – Pallisander simply played two recorders each! By this time we were delighted but not surprised at such feats of versatility. A healthy audience had made their way to this atmospheric outpost on Orkney’s wild west coast, and after enthusiastic and sustained applause, at least one audience member made his way to the beach to enjoy the warm sunshine with an impromptu swim in the surf.

Chatting to the Festival Director Alasdair Nicolson in the magnificent setting of Kirkwall’s St Magnus Cathedral before the Tenebrae concert, the courage and enterprise required to restart the festival became apparent. Alasdair and his committee are to be applauded for staging against considerable headwinds such a varied programme of first-class performances. Orkney is a magical place, but in June it is all the richer for the welcome return of the St Magnus Festival.

D. James Ross

This PDF version has more photos: St Magnus Festival 2022 

Concert-Live performance Festival-conference

Les Rencontres musicales de Vézelay

If you happy to be lucky enough to be a couple of hundred miles south east of Paris from 25-28 August 2022, don’t miss the many early music treats at the 22nd festivals. Curated by “Cité de la voix”, you can hear Handel’s “Esther”, Scarlatti’s “Stabat mater” and Reinoud van Mechelen’s critically acclaimed programme devoted to Rameau’s leading high tenor, Jéliote. Check out the festival HERE.


Les Traversées 2022

If you happen to be anywhere near the Abbaye Noirlac in central France on any Saturday between 18 June and 16 July 2022, be sure to check out this festival schedule: Les Traversées 2022 – with three events on each date and the option to include a picnic in your ticket price, this sounds like a marvellous way to spend a summer’s evening. Highlights for early music fans will be Aliotti’s “Il Trionfo Della Morte” on 25 June, and a St John Passion by Les Surprises on 16 July.

Book Festival-conference

Sara Levy’s World: Gender, Judaism and the Bach Tradition in Enlightenment Berlin

Eastman Studies in Music 145
Edited by Rebecca Cypess and Nancy Sinkoff
302pp. ISBN 978-1-58046-921-0 £80
University of Rochester Press, 2018.

This book is the outcome of a symposium in 2014 at Rutgers University. Eleven chapters, packed with information and extensive notes, attest to one of the cornerstones of musicological research: learned contributors excavate, analyse and explicate figures hidden from history.

Here the subject is Sara Levy (nee Itzig, as she signed herself in some of her few surviving letters). Madame Sara Levy (1761- 1854) was Felix Mendelssohn’s (he of the historic1829 performance of J. S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion) great-aunt. She died aged 94, had no children, and is a fascinating and significant figure for two reasons.

The first reason is musical. Levy was a friend and patron of the Bach family. She was a skilled harpsichordist, taught by W. F. Bach, and performed privately and publicly into her 70s – Charles Burney apparently heard her play. Her banker husband played the flute (alright for some), and they commissioned music from C.P.E. Bach. She had a remarkable collection of autographed music manuscripts and prints of the works of the Bach family, which she donated to the Sing-Akademie in Berlin (there is a photo of the house in the book). The collection disappeared, and was – finally – discovered, largely intact, in Kiev, in the Ukraine, in 1999.

Till then, Sara Levy was virtually unknown, However, Peter Wollny, director of the Leipzig Bach-Archiv, published a book about her in 2010 (in German, as yet untranslated, as far as I know). He is also responsible for the Grove entry on her.

Sara Levy was a significant figure for another reason. She was one of the salonnieres in the 18th-early19th centuries in Berlin. These salons were gatherings of friends, family and acquaintances, and they were cultural as well as social events: there might be discussions about books or politics, play-readings, and, of course, music. The salons were generally hosted by women, who were thus able to take part domestically in cultural activities from which they were excluded in the public sphere.

The added dimension to this part of musical/social history is that Sara Levy was one of an elite group of Jewish salonnieres in Berlin. Thus, as more than one chapter points out, she was part of a community of Prussian Jews who were involved in shared cultural activities with Christians – activities which straddle the two concepts of ‘emancipation’ and ‘assimilation’, in the process, as one of the chapters puts it, ‘of becoming modern Europeans’.

However, these oases of cultural coexistence should not be idealised. While there were conversions and intermarriage, there was also fierce controversy. Some of Sara Levy’s family became Protestants, but she remained steadfastly Jewish, though there is no evidence as to whether she was observant. She was involved in Jewish organisations, subscribed to the publication of Hebrew books and supported Jewish and Hebrew education.

At the same time, ‘she embraced Christian elements from German and European culture’. However, while some Jews ‘acquired a taste for church music’, and even had Christmas trees, ‘she and other Jewish women’s musical training (was) through Bach’s instrumental music’, rather than through compositions with Christian religious texts. Women were banned at the time from participating in Catholic and Protestant liturgical music.

It is clear that there were cultural tensions in operation, intertwined with the co-operations. Perhaps one of the most telling examples is the case of Mendelssohn himself. Baptised aged seven into the Protestant faith, at the age of twenty he was responsible for the revivalist performance in 1829 of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion, the story of the passion of Christ as king and Messiah, a challenge to Jewish theology. Contradiction and co-existence in a single piece of music. This historical period marked, as so many others have, arguments for Jewish tolerance alongside anti-semitism.

The book is fascinating, since, in the absence of autobiographical writings and other evidence, Sara Levy and her world are presented through an interdisciplinary perspective. It would have been great to have more information and gossip: was Sara present at the 1829 Passion? Did she know how Mendelssohn got the music in the first place? We will just have to imagine.

Towards the end of the book, an essay aims to clinch the cross-cultural argument by referring to the number of duets for various instruments in Sara Levy’s collection – including nine duets by Telemann which do not appear attributed anywhere else. These duets, it is argued, show that, in the equal balance of voices consists the metaphor through which an analogy and model for cultural co-operation is sealed. In turn, concepts of counterpoint and imitation, drawn from music, become metaphors for conversations between cultures. The images are elegant, anthropomorphic and musicomorphic (to coin a term).

While they function as an attempt to elide cultural and religious tensions, the book, in its carefully researched detail and variety of approaches, shows its subject, Sara Levy, as a social exception who serves to prove the musical rule, that women in music were rarely seen or heard. In this case, she is retrieved as having a crucial role in helping to generate, preserve and revive, the music written by the Bach family (all men, in case the point needs to be made!).

Michelene Wandor




Hands-on Baroque weekend

If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to be involved with one of the amazing productions at Versailles during the 17th and 18th centuries, now is your big chance! As one of the re-imagined ways to enjoy artistic ventures, the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles has organised a two-day spectacular during the last weekend in August, in which you (as an individual or a family) can get firsthand experience of making such a thing happen. For more information click HERE.


Festival d’Ambronay 2020 “Explorations”

Over the course of three weekends from 18th September until 4th October, a “re-imagined” Ambronay Festival for the COVID-19 world features a wide range of concerts and activities, including musical tours and a conference.

You can download the programme HERE.

Book Festival-conference

Musik in Anhalt-Zerbst

Bericht über die Internationale Wissenschaftliche Konferenz am 12. und 13. April 2019 im Rahmen des 15. Internationalen Fasch-Festtage in Zerbst/Anhalt
Edited by Barbara M. Reul and Konstanze Musketa
374pp, ISBN 978-3-937788-61-6 €39.50

Click here to buy this book from the publisher’s website

It seems appropriate on the 322nd anniversary of the composer’s birth to review the latest in a series of conference reports that have enriched our knowledge and understanding of Johann Friedrich Fasch’s life and works. Personal circumstances meant I was unable to attend the conference (which, as regular readers will know, is part of a festival in which music pertinent to the many papers is often performed) so I am doubly glad to have received a copy of the book, packed as it is with new information.

Jan Stockigt produced evidence of a previously unknown trip to Leipzig that Fasch made in 1738; records that survive for those entering through the city gates have survived and amongst many other gems and snippets about musicians and royalty attending the annual fayres was a note of Kapellmeister Fasch entering with a Pastor Voigt. Possible reasons for the trip are suggested that would tie in with payments from court coffers, but Stockigt suggests that among the many thousands of unread documents in the various Dresden archives more evidence may yet be found.

After editor Barbara M. Reul‘s key address in which she produced a vast quantity of new information about musicians active within the court of Zerbst and the Anhalt lands over which it ruled, Maik Richter discussed the 1717 celebrations of the anniversary of the Reformation. Then came my own paper which presented new evidence of musical activities in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, including two unknown musical inventories revealing the extent of music-making in the earlier period, three new printed texts for cantatas performed in the Bartholomäikirche (which functioned until 1719 as the court chapel) in 1718 and identifying several of the sources of music performed in the new palace chapel from 1719-1722 when Fasch arrived. Amongst the music performed were two cycles of cantatas by Johann Philipp Krieger; several texts from those three years were repeated in later cycles, including the so-called “Dresden” cycle – that lends support to Marc-Roderich Pfau’s theory explored at a previous conference that the cycle may have been compiled in Zerbst.

Gottfried Gille – whose Fasch-Repertorium (a comprehensive list of Fasch’s religious music) has just been updated – explored in great detail the palace chapel diaries for the church year 1735-36, identifying preachers, establishing the standardised service structures, and exploring non-liturgical texts used in non-Sunday services. Marc-Roderich Pfau‘s second article on cantatas for Apostle Days (something of a Zerbst curiosity) revealed that these were only performed when the date of the feast fell on a Saturday or a Sunday; this explains why Fasch set the texts twice – as the music would be needed in consecutive years, it had better be different (Fasch used and re-used the same cycles throughout his career).

After Stockigt’s paper, Rashid-S. Pegah delved into music in Jever, a town in the north of Germany that fell under the control of Anhalt-Zerbst when the last ruler died without issue. Painting a rich picture of an active musical scene, Pegah also found music by various cantors and other applicants of the job. Like his 2017 paper, this is packed with information and will take weeks to absorb.

The following two papers concerned dancing and more specifically dancing masters in Zerbst. Hanna Walsdorf and Tatjana Schabalina took different approaches; the former concentrated on archival documentation for her portrait of the Hoftanzmeister Anton Albrecht Borckmann and suggested music for dancing might be staring us in the face in many of the Jever music sources (as well as Fasch’s orchestral suites – of which I am rather sceptical), while the latter presented a treatise by Gottfried Taubert that she discovered in the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg.

The next two neatly paired papers concerned the bassoon; Ursula Kramer discussed Johann Christian Klotsch, a virtuoso on the instrument who played in the Zerbst Hofkapelle for over two years until 1736 before moving to Darmstadt (where Fasch’s former prefect, Christoph Graupner, was Kapellmeister). while Klaus Hubmann described Fasch’s music for the instrument and the type of instrument it was most likely played on.

Samantha Owens paper was not directly related to Zerbst but was nonetheless relevant; for years, much of what we know about the activities of boys in court music-making has been (with the exception of Ralph-Jürgen Reipsch‘s 2015 article on a boy soprano from Magdeburg whom Fasch seems to have tried to attract to the Hofkapelle) confined to names and passing references; Owens uses documentation from other Lutheran courts to build a compelling picture of the life of choirboys in the first third of the 18th century.

For those of us who are desperate to understand Fasch’s day-to-day life, Paul Beckus‘s contribution is very valuable; he lists the noble families who held positions at the court and explores the concept of “representation” (i. e., the way princes projected their importance to others), of which the musical establishment was very much part. The final paper by Annegret Mainzer is a survey of musicians from Anhalt who worked in Russia during the second half of the 18th century, a by-product of the marriage between the two courts and the crowning of Catherine the Great (formerly a princess in Zerbst).

So no new musical manuscripts were discovered and only two papers that were really about Fasch at all, but there is still much to learn about the man and his music, and there remain many unturned pages in the archives that will reveal more and more. Let us hope that in the post-COVID-19 world, there is still room for Fasch festivals and Fasch conferences!

Brian Clark


The Ambronay Festival at 40 – Some Personal Reflections

You can download this article as a PDF by clicking Ambronay40.
Photo credit: Stéphanie D’Oustrac with Amarillis – Ambronay Festival 2019 © Bertrand Pichène

Over the years I have sent many reports of the Ambronay Festival to EMR and elsewhere, so the occasion of the 40th Anniversary season has prompted me to think along rather different lines. What follows therefore is a personal retrospective covering attendance at a quarter of the total of Ambronay’s festivals. My excuse, reason – call it what you will – for doing so is the unique and treasured relationship, no less than a love affair, that has developed over that time between us (my partner Anne and myself – to whom all future references of ‘us’ or ‘we’ refer) and the festival. As with all love affairs, that has not meant blind acceptance of everything that has been seen and heard, as we will see.

First, though, let’s just remind readers who may not know that Ambronay is a small village some 35 miles northeast of Lyon, lying close to the foot of the thickly wooded hills of the Haut Bugey, pre-Alps forming a southern continuation of the mountains of the Jura. It’s a pleasant if unremarkable kind of place, the kind you might easily drive through without noticing the medieval Benedictine abbey church set back from the main street. Yet Ambronay and its abbey church, which is blessed with outstanding acoustics, are home not only to one of Europe’s most prestigious early music festivals, but also to an ambitious cultural centre of worldwide importance, founded in 2003. The festival itself was founded in 1980 by Alain Brunet, whose presence still graces the festival and about whom more later. Among artists to appear at early editions of the festival were the late Jean-Claude Malgoire and William Christie, who made his debut in 1984.

Our own first appearance at Ambronay came in 2009, the 30th Anniversary Season, which like the current celebratory season featured many of the artists particularly associated with the festival. As it happened, our first event did not take place at Ambronay itself, but in the theatre of the nearby town of Bourg en Bresse, a performance of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea directed by Leonardo Garcia Alarcón. That was also the night we met for the first time the festival’s international press agent, Véronique Furlan, a slight young woman who by coincidence was also experiencing her first festival. It must be confessed that on that occasion Véronique made little impression on me, but since that night she has become a much valued and indeed admired friend who, along with her husband Daniel and daughter Lila (yet to be born at the time), became a major component of the annual ‘Ambronay experience’. Véronique is one of those exceptional people with the extremely rare gift of making all those who come into her orbit feel they are of importance to her; beyond that she is quite simply the most efficient press agent I have ever encountered.

But back to that Poppea. Although the performance was a highly commendable example of the commitment Ambronay has always had to developing young artists, being given as it was by recent alumni and present members of the early music departments of the conservatoires of Lausanne and Geneva, it would also be the first of several occasions that occasioned reservations about the work of Alarcón. Here it was the conductor’s greatly inflated instrumental forces that jarred, more a large Renaissance band after the manner of Orfeo. A couple of years later Alarcón, who by then had become Ambronay’s chief artist-in-residence, presented a ‘colourful’ (to put it mildly) version of Il diluvio universale­, a re-discovered oratorio by the little-known Sicilian composer Michelangelo Falvetti, an aberration made worse by the fact that that it was supposedly following a scholarly version published by Ambronay’s admirable academic research department. It does not enhance Ambronay’s credentials as an early music research centre that Alarcón’s corrupt Il diluvio, with its ‘world music’ interpolations – Ambronay has a strong folk ‘fringe tradition’ – was revived for the 40th Anniversary season.

In the early years of visits to Ambronay we were living in France, little more than an hour’s drive on the autoroute. It meant that we were able to attend concerts throughout the festival’s four weekends, traditionally held from the second weekend in September to the first in October and that first year we feasted on a range that covered a gamut from Handel’s oratorio Susanna directed by William Christie to the rarely heard intermedi for La pellegrina that formed part of the 1589 Medici wedding celebrations, performed by suitably lavish forces under the direction of Skip Sempé. Notwithstanding such large-scale pleasures, the most memorable concert of that year was a more intimate affair, a programme devoted to chamber settings of Vespers for the Virgin given by Concerto Soave, a concert dominated by Maria Cristina Kiehr, a singer whom I noted exuded ‘an aura of calm repose when not singing and a mesmerising hold on an audience when she is’. Two years later, Kiehr and Concerto Soave would prove equally entrancing in a cycle of works by such as Mazzocchi and Monteverdi devoted to episodes in the life of Christ.

In those days, the solo and small-scale concerts took place in the medieval Tour Dauphine, situated in the abbey grounds, later restored and today the mess where artists, Ambronay staff and invited visitors take their meals. This interaction is, I’m sure, one of the reasons for the agreeable ambiance of the festival. It was in the Tour we first heard (in a recital of Haydn songs) Stéphanie d’Oustrac, a young mezzo and alumnus of Ambronay’s Baroque Academy who was already starting to make waves at the start of what has since become an international career. Happily d’Oustrac was able to take part in Ambronay 40, giving the only concert we heard this year, a recital entitled ‘Éclats de folie’ (outbursts of madness) with the ensemble Amarillis, a subject eminently suited to a singer that has always shown a gift for strong dramatic projection. Here d’Oustrac was probably most successful in Purcell’s ‘Bess of Bedlam’ and ‘From Rosy bowers’ (Don Quixotte), her performances of Handel’s cantata ‘Ah, crudel’ (HWV 78) , and French repertoire by Campra, Marais and Destouches (extracts from Sémélé ) a little marred by what has become a fairly wide vibrato doubtless developed as a result of the singer having moved on to later, heavier repertoire. On their own, the accomplished Amarillis gave performances of works by Heinichen, Rebel, Eccles and Keiser.

In 2011 our visits to Ambronay underwent a fundamental change that would enhance our future relationship with the festival and those that administer it. This year the warmth and hospitality extended even to critics (!) was further enhanced by the offer of weekend accommodation in the newly and beautifully restored late 17th-century wing of the abbey complex, formerly the monks’ cells. We took advantage of this offer on the opening weekend, apparently the first people to stay in the spacious room we occupied since its restoration. It was tempting to imagine we might just have been its first occupants since the monk whose home it was in pre-Revolutionary days. Staying on the premises meant that since that time we have developed ever greater ties with the wonderful permanent and voluntary staff that make Ambronay what it is. Over the years these have become lasting friendships with many people, extending from founder and long-time general director Alain Brunet, the vivacious Mme Brunet and their charming daughter Marie to the be-whiskered doorman who now never fails to greet me without an enormous hug.

Our first concert that year also provided an introduction to an ensemble with whom another lasting friendship has developed. For critics, friendships with artists are always difficult territory, but such is the strong group personality and infectious delight in music making always displayed by Les Esprits Animaux, then one of Ambronay’s young ensembles in residence, that such reservations rather tended to be swept aside. Subsequent encounters with their seven members have always been hugely enjoyable, a concert they gave in 2017 in the church of the famous medieval fortress village of Pérouges, some 40 kms from Ambronay, remaining vividly in the mind. About that concert I wrote that ‘the players have matured into a truly outstanding chamber ensemble that now plays with real finesse and finish without having lost any of the vitality and evident pleasure they derive from making music together.’ Sadly we missed Les Esprit’s appearance at Ambronay 40. Incidentally, mention of Pérouges reminds me that it should be stressed that the festival has always been happy to ‘outsource’ its events over the region, having a strong relationship with Ain, the département in which it is located.

Both as an institution and in regard to the fabric of the wonderful location it occupies, the Ambronay Festival has never stood still. In 2012 the Tour Dauphine was replaced by the Salle Monteverdi, a renovated space lying within the main abbey complex and serving as a rehearsal hall in addition to becoming the main venue for smaller-scale concerts. It therefore became the location for the final assessments of a newly-established EU initiative with the less than beguiling name of eeemerging. Designed to give young early music ensembles residencies at early music festivals and concert series throughout Europe, initially four, later six, groups compete annually in front of the directors of festivals with which Ambronay interacts (including York), while audiences are invited to make their own choice. Over the years we have attended, the overall standard has been exceptionally high, making it an encouraging experience that renews faith in the future of early music. It has to be confessed, though, that I have rarely been in agreement with the verdict of the distinguished jury.

It would be probably somewhat tedious for readers to provide a listing of all the notable concerts we’ve attended at the Ambronay Festival over the years, but even as I write memories tumble into my head. So I hope I will be forgiven for mentioning a few of the most special ones. Sigiswald Kuijken, for some inexplicable reason the least celebrated of the great pioneers of the early music revival, is one of many who has had a special relationship with Ambronay, particularly its Academy. The late Clifford Bartlett, the founder of EMR, once wrote of how one can sometimes completely out of the blue encounter an amazingly powerful musical experience. Kuijken’s 2011 Mass in B minor was such an occasion. The one-per-part performance was shared between thirteen young singers, giving an opportunity for a large number to participate in one of the most challenging works in the repertoire. As I recorded, ‘The near-unbelievable musical quality and deep commitment of the performance was a tribute to those who had coached these young performers from no fewer than 20 countries, above all Kuijken, who produced an utterly dedicated performance that fused all his wisdom and long experience with fresh, exceptional talent’, producing ‘a performance that ultimately provided me with one of the most moving experiences of a long musical life, an experience that was about so much more than just music.’

Unquestionably the most memorable events of more recent years are the two concerts of Monteverdi madrigals given in 2015 and 2016 by a vocal ensemble drawn from Les Arts Florissants under the direction of Paul Agnew. The first, devoted to a selection taken from Books I to III featured performances with ‘textures and chording marked by superb finesse and finish’, but in which Agnew at times inspired his singers ‘to near operatic dramatic intensity’. ‘Throughout this compelling programme’, I concluded, ‘Agnew, who directed with understated authority as an ensemble member, seemed to be living every moment, each note.’ The following year Agnew gave extracts from Books IV, V and VI, which I described as, ‘searing, vividly dramatic and expressionistic performances. This was, quite simply, music making that scorched itself into the soul.’

And so Ambronay has reached another landmark. Surprisingly little has changed over the decade we have known it. Naturally there have been arrivals and departures, the departure of sécretaire générale Catherine Jabaly, who was so kind to us in the early years was a sad moment, while the ever-amenable Alain Brunet, who had been looking increasingly tired, handed over the reigns of the general directorship to Daniel Bizeray after the 2013 season. Relieved of the burden, Alain has now become president and gained a new lease of life, happily as much in evidence at the festival as he ever was.

Unsurprisingly Ambronay 40 brought in to celebrate an influx of luminaries who had long been associated with the festival, among them William Christie, Jordi Savall, Christophe Rousset and countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, along with more recent additions to the French early music scene such as Sébastian Daucé’s outstanding Correspondances. The prime reason for our attendance – other commitments regrettably making it a brief visit – was Rousset’s fine performance of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, dominated by the magnificent Sesto of Ann Hallenberg, one of the great mezzos de nos jours. But you’ll have to go to Opera magazine to read my full review of that. Should you go to Ambronay if you’re an early music enthusiast who has not yet been? Assuredly. Set aside next September now. Will I be there to celebrate Ambronay 50? Certainly, if destiny allows, for true love only grows even stronger with the years, and, to re-quote my earlier words, Ambronay is about ‘so much more than just music’.

Brian Robins


The Lammermuir Festival comes of age

D James Ross at the 10th Lammermuir Festival 2019

{ Click here to download an eight-page PDF of this review }

One glance at the brochure for the 2019 Lammermuir Festival revealed that the organisers had really pushed the boat out for their tenth anniversary. At the heart of this ambitious programme were concert sequences by three internationally renowned ensembles, the Quatuor Mosaïques, Vox Luminis and the Dunedin Consort. It is two years since the Quatuor Mosaïques delighted the Lammermuir audience with revelatory accounts on period instruments of the music of classical Vienna, and their very welcome return opened the current Festival with performances of Haydn and Beethoven in the exquisite St Mary’s Parish Church, Whitekirk. The Festival prides itself in the innovative matching of venues and performers, and this 15th-century jewel of a building proved the perfect home for the Quatuor. Appropriately for a beautifully sunny day, the programme opened with a sparkling account of Haydn’s op 64/6. Composed towards the end of the composer’s period of employment with the Esterházy family, this is a work of classical perfection with an overlay of virtuosic writing for the first violin and some witty episodes of rusticity, recalling the eastern European folk playing Haydn must have heard all around him. With Viennese blood coursing through their veins, the Quatuor inhabit Haydn’s music with a definitive authenticity, revelling in the master’s quirky writing and eloquent idiom. The decision to employ gut strings seems to alter the dynamics within the ensemble, leading to a much more democratic sound, from which the first violin is allowed to emerge by dint of Haydn’s cunning use of the upper range – how his colleague, the Hungarian virtuoso violinist Johann Tost, would have relished these moments in the sun! Erich Höbarth’s easy virtuosity gave us an inkling of why these op 64 quartets caused such a stir in London during Haydn’s first visit there in 1791.

Six years later, Haydn composed his op 76 Quartets, and the Quatuor gave us the fourth of these, called the Sunrise. The sheer elegance of this work by perhaps the greatest ever composer of string quartets was captured beautifully by the Mosaïques, whose rich sustained playing contrasted perfectly with episodes of sparkling wit and inspiration. Just as the op 76 Quartets are perhaps the most complete contribution made to the genre, this group seems to offer the complete package in performing them: utter integrity, technical assurance, considered authenticity, towering musicality and that x-factor of Viennese spirit!

The concert concluded with the first of Beethoven’s Razumovsky Quartets, composed in 1806 and marking a radical departure in the genre from the 36-year-old composer. The first of the set is a wonderfully lyrical and eloquent piece, and the Quatuor seemed to find a new intensity in their playing to express this new sound-world. Particularly impressive in this account were the two inner movements, the ironic Allegretto, where Haydnesque wit tipped occasionally into Beethovenian rage, and the sublimely sad Adagio, which the Quatuor imbued with an almost unbearable intensity. This opening recital in the Quatuor’s series of three seemed to set a standard it would be very hard to match.

The opening day of the Festival ended in spectacular style in St Mary’s Parish Church Haddington and the Dunedin Consort, fresh from a triumphant visit to the Proms. ‘Parish Church’ hardly seems an adequate epithet for Haddington’s magnificent 14th-century Collegiate Church, an establishment built for music and where the acoustic seems to be an active participant in every performance. Under the direction of John Butt, the Dunedins opened their four-concert series with a programme comprising two of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, two of his Orchestral Suites and two violin concertos by Vivaldi. The stunning soloist in the Vivaldi and the First Brandenburg, as well as being in many ways the soul of this remarkable ensemble, was its leader, Cecilia Bernardini. It seems that every note she plays is from the heart, and her stunning virtuosity seems just another way of her exploring the truth behind the music she plays. It is this intense musicality and desire to explore every aspect of the music they are playing which seems to possess this ensemble whenever they perform. An exquisitely phrased account of the first Orchestral Suite proved a stunning curtain-raiser, with some spectacular contributions from the group’s wind section of oboes and bassoon. Vivaldi’s less familiar op 8/6 Il Piacere proved an absolute delight.

The first half ended in spectacular style with Bach’s first Brandenburg. It would be nice if this work were the first orchestral use of the horn, although of course it isn’t. They sound as if they have been kidnapped from the darkest German woods, still braying their hunting calls and never quite integrated into the orchestral texture! The playing of Anneke Scott and Joe Walters, horns held spectacularly aloft, underlined the untamed nature of the Baroque horn, although they made the hair-raising practicalities of playing the valveless instrument without hand-stopping look effortless. This was a wonderfully vivid account of Bach’s first Brandenburg, and boded well for the complete set, which we would be hearing over the rest of the Festival.

The strings were allowed to shine in the second half, which opened with Bach’s beautifully compact third Brandenburg, whose imaginative opening movement and scampering concluding Allegro were linked by a heartfelt cadenza from Bernardini. The ‘Summer’ concerto from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons seemed to be extra Italianate in a sunny performance by the Dunedins, in which the fiery Presto episodes sizzled with energy. For the concluding account of Bach’s second Orchestral Suite, the Dunedins were joined by flautist Katy Bircher, whose warm tone and flawless virtuosity added a gleaming festive quality to some of Bach’s most joyous music.

The Lammermuir Festival are privileged to be allowed access to Lennoxlove Castle the home of the Duke of Hamilton, and in this special anniversary year they found to my mind the perfect synthesis of venue and performers for a charming morning recital. Surrounded by the finest of Scottish art, recorder player Tabea Debus and her ensemble seemed to thrive in the baronial magnificence of Lennoxlove’s 14th-century barrel-vaulted Great Hall. The sounds of recorder, viol, guitar and theorbo seemed utterly at home here, and the group’s Ode to an Earworm programme took us from the Middle Ages to the Baroque touching on a series of cult melodies. Processing in to the haunting tones of 14th-century Lament of Tristan, Debus magically conjured up her consort for a version of the Monteverdi’s Ciaconna. Playing mainly two lovely Renaissance instruments in the first half, Debus’s beautifully even tone and eye-watering dexterity breathed life into a sequence of material, familiar and unfamiliar.

The second half opened again with Debus on her own, this time playing a modern work by Freya Waley-Cohen called Caffeine in which both composer and performer would seem to have over-indulged in this powerful stimulant – a witty and stunning performance of a very effective show-piece. Concluding with an end-stopped high C-sharp, Debus ended up standing with one leg raised like the god Pan himself! A set of flighty variations on another earworm, Daphne, by the 17th-century recorder virtuoso Jacob van Eyck were given a performance which combined technical prowess with expressive musicality, while the highlights for me of a selection of Baroque pieces played by Debus on a variety of Baroque recorders were a beautifully passionate account of Purcell’s Fairest Isle and a heart-stopping performance of Handel’s Lascia ch’io pianga, which would have made Farinelli weep. In response to a well-deserved ovation, the group gave us one last earworm, which appropriately enough various members of the audience were heard to be singing and whistling as we wandered away through the lovely Lennoxlove grounds. It is a tune known in some sources as Old Bob Morris, but it exists in a number of guises which over the years I have played and even recorded – but can I put a name to it…?

To the lovely arts and crafts style Chalmers Memorial Church in Port Seton for the second of the Quatuor Mosaïques’ concerts. Mozart had just been studying Bach’s fugues when he was inspired in 1788 to write an Adagio and Fugue. While technically saturated in the world of the Baroque master, Mozart manages to make both these movements distinctly classical in style, and being Mozart he sets himself quite a challenge with his fugue subject which he proceeds to surmount triumphantly. The Quatuor seemed particularly intent on bringing out the fugal infrastructure of the music, which they achieved emphatically without sacrificing the overall musicality of the piece. Mozart famously was less comfortable composing string quartets than many other chamber genres, but you would never guess this from the consummate mastery displayed in his Prussian Quartet K575, composed the following year. Mozart was at the height of his powers, and his renewed interest in counterpoint helped conceive a work which belies any struggle he experienced in composing it. Christophe Coin found a wonderful singing tone for the cello melodies Mozart gives him, while the group’s performance generally had a wonderful assurance and gleam about it.

The second of Beethoven’s Razumovsky Quartets is a dark piece, but the Quatuor found what light they could in a revelatory reading, which showed the work to be subtle beyond imagining. In this performance the lop-sided Allegretto, so often performed as something of a freak show, had a knowing grin on its face, while the preceding Molto Adagio never lost its hymn-like quality, even after moments of desperation. The finale, a bundle of energy, seemed more optimistic and positive than I have heard it. The group are preparing a set of recordings of these ‘middle quartets’, and it seems to me that they will shine the same revelatory spotlight on them as they have just done on the ‘late quartets’.

The Catholic Church of Our Lady of Loretto and St Michael in Musselburgh is a new venue for the Lammermuir Festival, and what a venue! Rebuilt in 1903, the apse features a spectacular set of murals depicting the five joyful mysteries of the rosary executed between 1945 and 1947 by George N Duffie. What better backdrop than gleaming, burnished gold angels for the first in a pair of concerts by the renowned Belgian choral group Vox Luminis featuring music by Palestrina and Victoria? In this mini-Sistine Chapel the choir performed Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, a work famously composed to show that polyphony and clarity of text were not mutually exclusive. As so often when composers are under pressure, they produce their finest work, and this beautiful six and seven-part setting of the Mass is one of Palestrina’s finest works in the genre. Vox Luminis directed by Lionel Meunier sing with a direct, edgy tone without vibrato, but with enormous integrity and intensity. Preceded by the magnificent Super flumina Babylonis, the Mass was sung at low pitch avoiding the uncomfortable tenor singing and intrusive soprano tone sometimes unjustifiably associated with Palestrina and providing instead a wonderfully rich texture, built on the low bass voice of which the director was one. This was a performance without extremes of tempo or fussy interpretative details, but with a magnificent flow and sweep which were irresistible. The second half was an account of Tomas Luis de Victoria’s 1605 Requiem. Victoria had trained and worked in Rome, where he probably collaborated with Palestrina, and a juxtaposition of the two men’s work was informative. Where Palestrina, the consummate contrapuntalist, produces music of supreme perfection, Victoria, an ordained priest, seems to be more interested in the ways he can use compositional devices to heighten the passion and persuasiveness of his music. Innately in tune with this aspect of Victoria’s music, Vox Luminis produced a performance of towering intensity and overwhelming passion. Victoria builds his polyphony on the relevant plainchants, which also link and introduce several polyphonic sections. I could see why the performers used measured forms of these chants rather than the more customary freer chanting style, as these dovetailed beautifully when the chant became just one of several polyphonic voices. Greeted with enthusiastic applause, the group reprised the lovely six- and seven-part Agnus Dei from the Palestrina Mass they had opened with. It was impressive that two of their singers were ‘stand-ins’ replacing performers who at the last minute were indisposed – one of them was David Lee, the author of the excellent programme notes, who as he penned them can hardly have imagined he would be singing this wonderful music!

The 15th-century Collegiate Church at Crichton was the venue for the final concert in the Quatuor Mosaïques’ fascinating series, and notwithstanding a few access issues it proved a spectacular setting. Again it was clear that this was a building constructed with music in mind, and its acoustic was beautifully resonant. In his quartet op 74/3 the Rider we find Haydn at his most affable, with a perky Allegro, which is indeed redolent of a ride in the country, and a wonderfully genial Largo, while wit and energy suffuse the Menuetto and Allegro con brio. Composed for his return visit to London in 1794, the op 71 and 74 Quartets were designed to have an immediate impact, and Erich Höbarth’s easy virtuosity and the ability of the ensemble to conjure just the right mood proved equally triumphant. It is as well that we had been soothed by Haydn’s charms, as the next item in the programme was Beethoven’s acerbic, explosive and disturbing Quartet in F minor op 95, a work which the composer himself labelled Serioso and at one point considered suppressing. This was my second op 95 in a fortnight, and if anything I found the Quatuor’s raw and biting interpretation even more disturbing. The composer was in suicidal mood and wrote music which is by turns furiously angry and serenely resigned. The Quatuor, the masters of turning the mood on a sixpence, found every nuance in this remarkable work, producing a monumental performance which clearly astonished the capacity audience. While the final Allegro, intentionally shallow and brittle, solves nothing, the audience seemed to clutch at it like a straw. How things had changed in the 17 short years between these two string quartet masterpieces!

The stage was set for the third of Beethoven’s Razumovsky Quartets, completing the cycle at the heart of these concerts. In many ways the third Razumovsky is the mosrt attractive and certainly the most popular of the three, and while it is the only one not to embody Russian themes, it has a recurring eastern European flavour which is beguiling. The group, who are planning to record these quartets soon, have clearly prepared them already to an advanced level, and communicate their sheer joy as they play them. As the opening Andante transitioned into a charming Allegro vivace a smile went round the players, and at various other moments their sheer delight in playing such original music was clear. This masterpiece of Beethoven’s middle period, written just two years before the doom-laden op 95, when the composer’s hearing was failing and his life was falling apart, couldn’t be more different from the later work. It exudes positivity, and in a wonderfully expressive account, the Quatuor Mosaïques demonstrated why they are probably the most admired period instrument quartet in the world. An ovation worthy of Glastonbury from a rapt audience elicited a calming performance of a movement from Haydn’s op 33 – how innocent and uncomplicated this sublime music from 1781 sounded!

It is useful to remember the profound effect that historically informed performances have had on mainstream modern instrument groups, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with their period brass and percussion and intimate grasp of classical phrasing and bowing techniques are a shining example. In a concert which included more contemporary music, their accounts of Haydn’s Symphony no 44 Trauer and Mozart’s Linz Symphony no 36 were models of classical poise and elegance. Although the use of modern strings and woodwind does create some balance issues with the period brass, the crispness of attack, the stunning sense of ensemble and the sheer musicality of this fine ensemble make their performances of this repertoire thrilling. Under the baton of Moritz Gnann, standing in for the indisposed Daniel Blendulf, the SCO were in fine fettle, mesmerising a capacity audience in Dunbar Parish Church, a building extensively remodelled in 1987 after a fire and which proved a very sympathetic venue.

For their second performance for the Lammermuir Festival, Vox Luminis appeared in the festival’s most magnificent venue, St Mary’s Parish Church Haddington. Showing their versatility, they were joined by a continuo group of organ, gamba and harp for choral music mainly from the 17th century. Appositely for the venue, their main subject was the Virgin Mary, although an outlier here was Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa, with its own maiden in distress. Rather perversely the concert opened with the anonymous 13th-century Lamentation de la Vierge au pied de la Croix, a medieval work for unaccompanied solo voice exquisitely sung ‘at a distance’ in the apse. If the character of the rest of the concert proved to be very different, the theme was firmly established, and Antonio Lotti’s famous 8-part Crucifixus proceeded to pluck at our heartstrings. Its chains of plangent discords proved to be the perfect medium for an ensemble whose edgy vibratoless voices further turned the knife in the wound. More mellow was Monteverdi’s setting of Adoramus te Christe followed by his Lamento della Ninfa. The ‘backing group’ of commentating chorus and the solo soprano part were beautifully executed, although I did feel this attempt to open the theme to embrace all suffering women blurred an otherwise admirably focused programme. The first half of the concert ended with a work which I had never heard of by a composer I had also never heard of, the Lamentatio Virginis by Alessandro Della Ciaia. This extraordinary piece casts two voices as narrators, a solo soprano as the Virgin and a chorus of eight as Angels, and in a post-Monteverdian idiom with echoes of Caccini and even Gesualdo it conveys the suffering of the Virgin at the cross in such graphic and emotive music that I found tears forming in my eyes. An infrequent occurrence in a hardened performer/reviewer, my reaction is a testimony to the originality of this unique piece and the power and intensity of Vox Luminis’ performance. The concert was brought to an appropriately hard-hitting conclusion with a stunning performance of the ten-part Stabat Mater by Domenico Scarlatti, another work of enormous emotional and rhetorical power. Vox Luminis have an uncanny ability to maximize the intensity of the sound they are producing to create an almost unbearably overwhelming effect, making high-points in this Baroque repertoire deeply effective. The superbly sensitive continuo group were also a huge contributory factor in the success of the concert. Something which struck me only after the concert was over, was that the singers made minimal use of ornamentation, such as one might have expected in repertoire of this period – the fact that I didn’t even notice until after they had finished shows that their performances didn’t really need decoration of this kind. A calming five-part setting of Christe, adoramus Te by Monteverdi sent us out into a balmy Haddington night.

The third of the Dunedin Consort’s Brandenburg Concertos series brought us all to Prestongrange Church in Prestonpans, a rather sombre Presbyterian building with however a fine acoustic and whose unadorned windows let in the bright afternoon sunshine. The concert contrasted two of Handel’s op 6 Concerti Grossi with two Vivaldi concerti and Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg. While the fourth of Handel’s op 6 is a charming orchestral piece, the eleventh is a true concerto grosso with contrasting ripieno and concertino ensembles. The latter soloists chirp and twitter in imitation of birdsong evoking the Spring concerto of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which was played with lovely spontaneous ornamentation by Cecilia Bernardini. The decision to invite the group’s principal oboist Alexandra Bellamy to play Vivaldi’s op 8/12 was an inspired one – in c-major, the piece seemed to lie under her fingers, and the lovely rich tone of her Baroque oboe contrasted beautifully with the string ensemble. This fine concert concluded with Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg, a piece which like the First Concerto relied on the solo virtuosity of Cecilia Bernardini, this time in combination with Katy Bircher’s mellow Baroque flute playing and the harpsichord skills of John Butt. Essentially the earliest concerto to feature a solo keyboard instrument, Bach’s concerto sets the bar very high with blizzards of scales and arpeggios which demonstrated his own stunning keyboard virtuosity and spotlighted John Butt’s own remarkable keyboard prowess. The context in which the Dunedins have been placing Bach’s Brandenburgs as well as their novel insights into the works’ nuances and distinctive features have meant that a series which appeared to offer mainstream classic repertoire has been consistently thought-provoking and utterly revelatory.

While the chief joy of the Lammermuir Festival for me is the plethora of superb historically informed performances, many other concerts offer contemporary music, orchestral classics – indeed just about every other genre of music. I attended a beautifully executed account of Schubert’s Lieder cycle Die schöne Müllerin, or rather The Fair Maid of the Mill as it was sung in English by the legendary baritone Roderick Williams accompanied by Christopher Glynn – again an established classic but with a new spotlight shone on it. Cheek by jowl with a major new work by Stuart Macrae, the Prometheus Symphony, a work commissioned jointly by Radio 3 and the Lammermuir Festival, we enjoyed a truly stirring performance by the BBCSSO string section directed by Matthew Halls of Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia. Exploiting the lavish acoustic of St Mary’s Haddington, with the second orchestral group placed authentically towards the apse with the main ensemble and soloists in the cross, this masterpiece was allowed to blossom as its composer originally intended.

What better way to open the final concert of the Dunedin Consort’s Bach series, and indeed the final concert of the 2019 Lammermuir Festival, than Bach’s flamboyant Second Brandenburg Concerto. With its colourful line-up of soloists – treble recorder, oboe, violin and trumpet – the work extends the spectrum of timbres the composer has to play with, and of course the use of period instruments and historically informed performance practice causes apparent issues of balance simply to melt away. Trumpeter David Blackadder has arguably he most challenging job realising Bach’s intricate clarino writing on a valveless Baroque trumpet, but his performance was beautifully detailed and all exercised in a gleaming rounded tone. The recorder soloist László Rózsa managed to project his sound beautifully to emerge from the texture, while the ever excellent Cecilia Bernardini and Alexandra Bellamy completed a stellar concertino group in St Mary’s Haddington, which fairly rang to the tone of the period instruments.

The programme proceeded with another of the op 8 violin concertos of Vivaldi, no 10 La Caccia, a work invoking the sounds of the hunt and a cousin to Autumn in the Four Seasons. There was a little raggedness at the start of this charming piece and a couple of ‘rabbit in headlights’ moments later, perhaps understandable in the last in a series of such demandingly packed programmes. Handel’s urbane op 6 concertos have contributed heavily to the series, and now we heard no 10 which was played with a confident sweep within which every detail was audible. Vivaldi’s violin concerto op 8/11 brought the first half of this concert to a virtuosic conclusion. The remarkable Cecilia Bernardini, who in the course of the series had been the single or joint soloist in every single piece apart from the two oboe concertos, was as impressive here as she would be in Winter from the Four Seasons, which we would hear in the second half.

The second half opened with Handel’s op 6/9, a work in which the composer is at his most genial. The work features a magnificent hymn-like Larghetto and concludes with a wonderfully skipping Gigue – you can’t avoid the impression that the composer is working very hard to sound English here. A further contribution from the Consort’s principle oboist Allexandra Bellamy in the form of a charming account of Vivald’s op 8/9 proved technically challenging, but she brought the work to a convincing conclusion. The concert ended as it had started with the sparkling virtuosity of a Brandenburg Concerto, the Fourth with its nimble pair of treble recorders played by László Rózsa and the group’s flautist, Katy Bircher, whose flute playing had mesmerised us earlier in the week, and the ubiquitous Cecilia Bernardini. In this concerto Bach gives the violin cascading scales of notes in the manner of an early Baroque cornetto part.

It is fitting that we took leave of this tenth Lammermuir Festival with the sounds of Baroque instruments ringing around Haddington Collegiate Church, yet another wonderful coincidence of music and venue and a fulfilment of the Festival’s mission to combine beautiful music with beautiful places. Perhaps more importantly this was a festival replete with the very finest in historically informed performances, making it now the leading festival of this kind in Scotland today, and indeed now of European significance. Although the early music strand is just one of many which run through this remarkably eclectic festival, James Waters and Hugh Macdonald, the inspiring genius and driving force behind the Lammermuir Festival, continue to do a remarkable job in spotting ensembles which will enhance and enrich their programme and delight their audiences. Due to their efforts and those of a dedicated army of volunteers, the Lammermuir Festival has established itself at the top table of international music festivals, and we look forward with eager anticipation to its second decade.