Early Nights in Orkney

James Ross is a regular visit to the St Magnus International Festival. Read about his 2023 experiences by clicking this link:

Early Nights in Orkney


French Festivals

FANS OF EARLY MUSIC in France are spoiled for choice as the festival season kicks off again. Click below to download the brochures (PDFs in French only!) for:

Festival du Haut Limousin / Villefavard

Festival d’Ambronay


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