The Ambronay Festival at 40 – Some Personal Reflections

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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.

Concert-Live performance Festival-conference

The Cesti International Singing Competition

Innsbruck 2019

The ten finalists. Winner Grace Durham is second from the left. Photo © Celina Friedrichs

For the past decade an important component of the prestigious Innsbruck Early Music Festival has been the singing competition named after Pietro Antonio Cesti, several of whose operas were premiered in Innsbruck during the period he spent there as a court composer to the Archduke Ferdinand Karl. 2019 also sees the 350th anniversary of the death of Cesti, an event that will be commemorated later in the festival season with a production of his opera La Dori, first given in Innsbruck in 1657.

The singing competition was inaugurated ten years ago as the brainchild of the Innsbruck Festival’s artistic director Alessandro De Marchi, with past prize winners including a number of singers who have gone on to make an international career, most notably Hungarian soprano Emőke Baráth, who will take the title role in La Dori. Such is the eminence of the competition today that this year’s edition attracted over 200 entrants, their number reduced initially to 99, then to the ten finalists who contested two rounds before the final, broadcast live and held before the jury and an audience on 8 August in the Grosser Saal of Innsbruck’s imposing modern Haus der Musik.

The format for the evening involved each finalist singing two arias, one taken from Alessandro Melani’s L’empio punito (Rome, 1669), which will be staged at the 2020 Festival with a role for the winner. The other was free choice, it being perhaps a little disappointing that the majority of singers rather unambitiously selected Handel arias. On offer were three major prizes awarded by an international panel of jurists, in addition to which there was an audience prize, a young artist’s prize and an engagement with Resonanzen, the early music festival held in Vienna each January. The roster of finalists was dominated by higher voices, including six sopranos (one a male falsettist) and two mezzos, with only a bass and a baritone to represent lower registers.

When he came to introduce the prize awards, jury chairman Michael Fichtenholz (Zurich Opera and Karlsruhe Handel Festival) made the perhaps revealing observation that the jury wished them well on whatever path their career might take them, perhaps tacit recognition that on the evidence of what we had heard not all the finalists seemed likely ultimately to pursue a career in early music. Perhaps more predictable were the inevitable platitudes to the effect that all the contestants deserved a prize. In some senses Fichtenholz was right. The overall professionalism and ability to communicate and articulate text was impressive, as was the general technical level of achievement in such as generally well-articulated passaggi. However it could equally be argued that in other respects none of the contestants deserved a prize in an early music singing contest. Throughout twenty arias, only one singer (the eventual winner) came anywhere near attempting a trill, a basic requirement of Baroque singing technique, and we did not hear a single example of that most beautifully expressive and greatly prized Baroque ornament, the messa di voce. It continues to perplex me that singers looking to perform early music are sent out into the world so ill-equipped to do it justice in such respects. Poorly controlled vocal production was another of the problems for several of the singers with larger voices, while another matter to which some of them might also attend are disagreeable facial expressions that would not have passed Tosi’s dictum to avoid making an ugly face while singing.

The three lesser prizes awarded went to the same singer, the Austrian soprano Miriam Kutrowatz, the youngest singer in the competition and obviously a popular choice. Belying her age (22), she sang both her arias with a range of colour and nuance beyond most of her seniors, while also displaying a charming personality. She came very close to being my overall choice, though in the end my vote went to the Hungarian soprano Orsolya Nyakas, who sang her Melani aria with an engaging sweetness and character, while displaying absolute security and a touching emotional response to Melissa’s ‘Ah, spietato!’ from Handel’s Amadigi di Gaula. Her da capo ornamentation and cadenzas were also more stylish than those of most of her rivals. The second and third placed sopranos, Dioklea Hoxha from Kosovo and the Cypriot soprano Theodora Raftis both sang with great commitment if not always perfect control, but they are singers I would expect to find moving quite happily on to later repertoire. While feeling pride that the competition produced a British winner, mezzo Grace Durham will I suspect also be unlikely to follow an early music career, an impression underlined by her CV. The voice itself has a lovely warm and rounded quality, but though her singing of ‘Son qual misera’ from Hasse’s Cleofide had its impressive moments, I found myself disagreeing with the jury, finding some of her singing poorly controlled.

The Cesti Singing Competition, in which the singers were faithfully supported by members of the Cesti Orcestra under the direction of harpsichordist Mariangiola Martello, proved to be a rewarding, compelling and thought-provoking experience.

Brian Robins


French Festivals

We have received press packs for three of France’s leading festivals that feature early music. Click below for information (in French only, but easily understood!)

Ambronay 2019

Combrailles 2019

Vézelay 2019

There is much more than live music to enjoy!



Among the many glories that contribute to the extraordinary complex that is Versailles, few emulate the classical grandeur of its Chapelle Royale. Built for Louis XIV by the great architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart between 1689 and 1710, during the course if the 18th century it would witness ceremonial that included royal weddings and the singing of grandiose Te Deums to celebrate military victories and royal births. Today, along with the later 18th-century opera house, it forms the most important venue for the musical promotions of Versailles Spectacles, the management arm of all public events mounted at Versailles. During the course of an interview I conducted recently with Laurent Brunner, its highly cultivated director, Brunner readily recognised how fortunate he is to be in the unique position of having two such magnificent and complimentary historic buildings at his disposal, one for opera and concerts, the other for sacred music. The Chapelle Royale currently plays host to some 30 concerts annually and while they are spread throughout the year the principal concentration is on the two major church festivals of Christmas and Easter.

In 2019 the period leading up to Easter (March 31 to 20 April) featured seven events, including both Bach Passions. During the course of Holy Week itself, Jordi Savall directed a performance of the St Matthew Passion, while Good Friday and Holy Saturday brought respectively the Pergolesi Stabat Mater and Leçons de Ténebrès by both Couperin and Lully’s father-in-law, Michel Lambert. It was these last two days that I was able to attend, an interesting feature of which was the placing of the major works within some kind of context. Most surprising – and indeed for some in the audience disconcerting – was the framing of Pergolesi’s bitter-sweet Stabat Mater with a lively, not to say raucous Neapolitan tarantella, albeit with a Marian text that makes mention of the Thursday of Holy Week. It was preceded by a plainsong intonation of the 13th century Stabat Mater hymn, the tarantella heard initially off-stage then in lively procession by the forces of Le Poème Harmonique under their director Vincent Dumestre. Such practice was very much a part of Neapolitan life, where festivals mingled sacred topics with profane street life to a degree unknown in the West today. Two further plainsong settings and a rather brusquely played Concerto in F minor by Francesco Durante led to the Pergolesi Stabat Mater, sung by soprano Sophie Juncker and mezzo Eva Zaïcik. It was a performance characterised by a considerably more dramatic approach than the juxtaposition of painful dissonance and sensual comfort more often encountered in the work. It made for an intriguing comparison with more conventional, lyrical performances, but although both singers were fully engaged and in general sang well – though ornamentation was poorly articulated – the overall effect was closer to secular drama, Juncker, in particular, bringing such inappropriate intensity to a verse such as ‘Vidit suum’ as to produce something close to screaming. Interestingly, the performers had obviously focussed on the duet ‘Fac ut portem’ (Make me bear Christ’s death) as the heart of the work.

Dumestre and Juncker, along with a continuo group from Le Poème Harmonique, returned the following evening for the first of two concerts featuring music for the service of Tenebrae, which formed Matins and Lauds for the final three days of Holy Week. During the latter part of the 17th century leçons de ténebrès, settings of texts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah became popular in France, attaining the status of a genre in themselves. Couperin’s extant leçons relate only to the three he composed for Thursday. The most distinctive feature of Tenebrae services was the dramatic and potently symbolic gradual extinguishing of the candles that lit the chapel, a format followed by the Versailles performance, though here the ceremonial took place during the performance of a Miserere by Clérambault added after the Couperin, a long setting for vocal trio (SSMez-S) that after an impressive dissonant opening was too lengthy a supplement to the Couperin. It did, too, seem rather pointless that following the extinction of the final candle the moment of black contemplation was almost immediately dissipated by the full restoration of the chapel lighting, thus inducing a wave of inappropriate applause. Returning to the Couperin, many readers will doubtless have come to know these supremely lovely settings through the famous 1977 recording made by Emma Kirkby and Judith Nelson. The present performance, again set within the context of plainsong (by Gabriel Nivers), brought something very different. As with the Pergolesi, Dumestre seemed determined to seek unwonted drama in the music, inspiring Juncker and second soprano Claire Lefilliâtre to performances that completely lacked the chaste, serene purity of Kirkby and Nelson. Given that this is music written for a nunnery the approach of the latter is surely closer to authentic style, however good the singing of the French sopranos?

For the succeeding late concert, a smaller audience was ushered into the balcony to surround the organ for a set of unknown leçons de ténebrès for the third day by Michel Lambert, today known for his airs de cour, songs that would have a considerable influence on Lully’s operatic airs. Originally composed for three voices and continuo, they were given here in a solo version prepared and sung by the baritone Marc Mauillon. Once again these deeply felt pieces were sung within a plainsong context. Initially it seemed that Mauillon’s grainy, imprecise singing would create a barrier between music and listener, but in fact he improved considerably both tonally and in security of pitch, ultimately producing some of the most affecting and idiomatic singing over the two days, days that, despite reservations, provided an intensely moving experience much enhanced by the supreme Baroque splendour and dignity of the surroundings.

Brian Robins


Ambronay Festival 2018

Jordi Savall, members of Hesperion XXI and La Capella Reial de Catalunya - ©CCR Ambronay
Jordi Savall, members of Hesperion XXI and La Capella Reial de Catalunya – © CCR Ambronay

[dropcap]R[/dropcap]egular readers of EMR will be familiar with my reports from this most engaging of early music festivals, both online and formerly in print. The 2018 edition indeed represented something of a personal milestone, it marking my tenth visit to the small town of Ambronay, nestling beneath the pre-Alpine foothills of the Haut Bugey. At its heart lies the mainly 13th-century Abattiale (abbey) with its extensive attendant buildings, today the home of a centre cultural rencontre and venue of the principal concerts of the annual festival held over four autumn weekends.

The 2018 festival adopted the theme ‘Vibrations Cosmos’, as usual with such appendages a sufficiently vague umbrella to be open to fairly flexible interpretation. Obvious standout events included Handel’s Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno under René Jacobs and Acis and Galatea with Le Banquet Céleste; Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responses sung by Les Arts Florissants; and the first modern performance of Destouches’ tragédie en musique Sémiramis, given by Les Ombres under the direction of Margaux Blanchard and Sylvain Sartre.

This year we attended the second weekend of the festival (21-23 September), the first concert of which brought renewed acquaintance with Vox Luminis, who we’d heard at the Saintes Festival only weeks before (a report of that festival can be found on this site). Indeed this vocal ensemble, directed from within the group by bass Lionel Meunier, has in recent years become ubiquitous in French early music circles. The reasons are not hard to determine. The ensemble appears settled on three singers to a part, all soloists in their own right but also capable of producing a well balanced ensemble and well-focussed singing. On this occasion these qualities were particularly in evidence in the youthful vitality and brilliance of Handel’s Dixit Dominus, a work it is virtually impossible not to succeed with. If the opening has been given with more verve – there was a slightly tentative entry at ‘donec ponem’ in the opening ‘Dixit’ – this was from both orchestra and chorus an exciting performance, with a thrilling climax to the first part of ‘Dominus a dextris’, for example. As at Saintes, however, both here and in the Bach Magnificat that followed I found Meunier’s habit of taking his vocal ensemble off-stage during solo numbers both an affectation and distracting. The Bach was not quite as satisfying. Whatever feelings you may have about one-per-part Bach choirs, three strikes me as an unsatisfactory compromise since it leads almost inevitably to untidy moments, especially when the conductor is one of the singers, the magnificent opening ‘Magnificat’ itself lacking incisiveness. But elsewhere there was some sensitive singing at ‘Quia respexit’ and an impressively committed ‘Deposuit’ from the tenor soloist. The orchestra was excellent throughout.

Vox Luminis under the direction of Lionel Meunier (second from right) - © CCR Ambronay
Vox Luminis under the direction of Lionel Meunier (second from right) – © CCR Ambronay

An unscheduled tumble that required patching up repairs meant that I unfortunately missed the following afternoon’s concert devoted to 18th-century Scottish music performed by tenor Robert Getchell and Les Musiciens de Saint –Julien. I heard good reports of it.

The evening brought a concert that did unquestionably tie in with the theme of the festival, a superbly devised programme based around the life and times of the Renaissance mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). It was given by the inimitable Jordi Savall and a substantial Hespèrion XXI instrumental ensemble of viols, wind, keyboard and percussion, along with a six-voice Capella Reial de Catalunya vocal ensemble. Given that Copernicus was born and died in Poland, La Capella Reial appropriately on this occasion consisted mainly of Polish singers, including the soprano Aldona Bartnik and mezzo Ewa Puchalska, both outstanding singers who contributed significantly. From the outset, a rousing, noisy celebration of the Peace of Torun (Copernicus’ birthplace) in 1466, the concert was nothing less than an utterly absorbing European history lesson in music, taking in such events as the 1515 Congress of Vienna, illustrated by Senfl’s take on the famous song ‘Fortuna desperata’, Luther’s 95 theses (a wonderful performance of Heinrich Isaac’s ‘Christ ist erstunden’) and climaxing with the publication in the year of his death of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). This was represented by ‘Omnus mundus jocundetur’, an irresistible Polish Christamas song so beguiling it was repeated as an encore. It is a measure of Savall’s genius as musician and communicator that the version heard in the encore differed completely. But doing full justice to this enthralling evening without testing the patience of anyone simply reading about it would be nigh on impossible.

The final day of our visit again included afternoon and (early) evening concerts. The latter took the form of what turned out to be a glorious performance of Acis and Galatea given by another of France’s outstanding early music ensembles. But that I’ve written about elsewhere (Opera), I’m afraid, so that just leaves the earlier event, given in the Salle Monteverdi, the abbey’s smaller concert room. Given by Ensemble La Vaghezza, one of the groups participating in the eeemerging programme supported by Ambronay, it consisted of 17th Italian works by composers such Biagio Marini and Dario Castello for one or (mostly) two violins and continuo. Sadly, here was another group of technically accomplished young players whose performances make no attempt to distinguish between 17th- and 18th-century styles, playing instruments neither set up nor bowed correctly for earlier Baroque string music. The result was heavily-textured performances begging for a lighter, airier touch and some recognition of the sprezzatura, or element of careless fantasy, that brings this music to life. In short, what should have been soufflé was more like suet pudding and as such became wearisome to the ear long before the concert came to an end. This is not the first time I have felt the necessity to write in this vein on this topic; it continues to puzzle me why young performers who feel drawn to this repertoire do not investigate a more appropriate, historically informed style of performance. But this report must not be allowed to conclude in discord. The Ambronay Festival remains one the most hospitable and vibrant of early music festivals; may it continue to be so long after my much-anticipated visits finally come to an end.

Brian Robins


‘More Beautiful Music – More Beautiful Places’

D James Ross reviews the 2018 Lammermuir Festival

A Right Royal Recital

Our ears were still ringing from the BBCSSO’s magisterial account of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony in St Mary’s Collegiate Church, Haddington, in the opening concert of the 2018 Lammermuir Festival, as we settled for an event on the opposite scale. Bach scholar, keyboard player and conductor John Butt had chosen the intimate setting of Gladsmuir Parish Church for his mid-afternoon account with explanations of Bach’s Musical Offering. With the help of seven instrumentalists from the Dunedin Consort, Butt explained and illustrated the context, structure and style of the modest three-part Ricercar, the ten Canons, the Trio Sonata and the magnificent six-part Ricercar which make up Bach’s BWV 1079. The performance opened with the three-part Ricercar played on harpsichord by Butt – this is Bach’s memory of the work he improvised on the spot for Frederick the Great on the melody provided to him by the King, the notoriously wayward Thema Regium. Even the great improviser Bach was stumped when asked for a six-part elaboration – the King had to wait until he received his presentation copy of the full set, whereas we only had to wait until the end of an enthralling afternoon.

Butt’s commentary was both erudite and witty – most of the hilarity was intentional, although forgetting his performers’ roles and indeed names, declaring, ‘Well they all look the same to me!’ was vintage Butt. The musical contributions by his players were technically superb and delightfully varied in texture, involving as they did performances on the violin, cello, viola da gamba, flute, oboe, oboe da caccia and bassoon. A particular highlight was Huw Daniel and Georgia Brown’s delicious account on violin and flute, sympathetically accompanied by Jonathan Manson on cello and John Butt on harpsichord, of the central Trio Sonata, in which Bach goes out of his way to demonstrate his mastery of the galant style. The growing richness of the textures throughout the concert culminated in the group’s concluding account of the iconic six-part Ricercar, for which wind and strings combined and gambist Alison McGillivray took to violone to underpin this concluding tour de force. An event which may have looked a little dry in the brochure turned out to be wonderfully entertaining and informative, and it was a tonic to hear some of my fellow audience members humming the Thema Regium as we all left.

Miserere and More

How do you solve a problem like Allegri? This was the issue facing Rory McCleary and his Marian Consort in their programme entitled Miserere and featuring the 2011 setting by James Macmillan as well as the ubiquitous setting by Gregorio Allegri. As a musicologist, McCleary is well aware of the problematic nature of the standard edition of the Allegri, and yet it would be a brave ensemble, which would eschew entirely the stratospheric if entirely synthetic solo soprano ‘moments’. The solution they came up with, pragmatic if not entirely convincing, saw the post-Mendelssohn solo verses alternating with the ‘original’, while a solo tenor sang the chant to the Tonus Peregrinus and the chorus actually sang Allegri. With the audience in position, it turned out acoustically that the solo ensemble would have been better placed at the east end of the 15th-century Whitekirk Parish Church rather than the west, but overall the chorus/solo/chant alternation worked well. A further unexpected issue emerged only at the end of the concert when the ensemble presented an exquisite account of James Macmillan’s Miserere, based upon the ‘modern’ Allegri – Macmillan alludes regularly to the standard narrative chant normally used for the Allegri, which of course due to the earlier choice of the Tonus Peregrinus we hadn’t actually heard!

A searing and imaginative 2018 setting by Gabriel Jackson of Stabat Mater receiving its Scottish premiere, was given a blistering performance by the ensemble. This was probably the most striking music of the evening, but the earlier repertoire including lovely readings of Palestrina’s eight-part Stabat Mater and five-part Ave Maria as well as a very fine eight-part setting by Victoria of Super flumina Babylonis proved the highlights for me. In this Renaissance repertoire the consort found a lovely balance and sang in a wonderfully rich and declamatory style – like many young vocal ensembles, the Marian Consort are not averse to a touch of vibrato, but the sound is generally well-focussed and expressive. An enthusiastic response from a capacity audience elicited a serene account of an eight-part setting of Jesu Redemptor by the Portuguese Renaissance composer Estêvào Lopes Morago.

Charms of the Clavichord

Strictly speaking, the clavichord is not really an instrument designed for public performance – its subtle tone and very low volume level mean that it pleases primarily the performer. However, in pursuit of ‘beautiful music in beautiful places’, the Lammermuir team had persuaded Edward and Anna Hocknell to make available their exquisite 16th-century country house, Fountainhall, for a recital by Julian Perkins. And the period intimacy of the first-floor room proved the perfect venue for what turned out to be an enchanting afternoon concert.

Appropriately enough, Perkins opened with a delightful account of Byrd’s Lord Willobies Welcome Home during which we became quickly accustomed to the clavichord’s soft but subtle voice. By way of contrast, Perkins performed the same piece on a charming Arnold Dolmetsch spinettino, an instrument which had once appeared alongside celebrity puppet Muffin the Mule! Perkins’ amusing and informative commentary introduced a darkly impressive Partita by Johann Froberger, two enigmatic sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti and the G-minor Suite by Handel. The latter played a clavichord in his childhood, and Perkins quite reasonably proposed that some of his more conservative ‘Germanic’ keyboard works were conceived on, and perhaps even for, the instrument.

The second half of the concert was in many ways the more intriguing part, consisting as it did of later music actually written for the clavichord, an instrument which continued to enjoy the attention of musicians up to our own times – Edward Heath celebrated taking the UK into Europe by performing Bach on his clavichord! Herbert Howells wrote a not inconsiderable body of work for the instrument, which proved to draw equally effectively on the Elizabethan and Edwardian worlds he knew so well. More recently, Stephen Dodgson has taken a more radically modern approach to the instrument in two Suites for Clavichord. We heard the second, in which the composer builds on the fascinating conceit of fanfares heard at a distance, which the versatile clavichord with its slight brazen after-tone evoked perfectly. As the recital concluded with a set of four Preludes and Fugues from Bach’s ‘48’, I was struck by just how dynamically and tonally versatile this modest instrument can be, and how in the right hands and in the correct setting the effect is simply magical. This was confirmed by a ravishing revisiting of the C-major Prelude, whose subtly rippling arpeggios gave us an encore to treasure.

Consonant Consones

Lennoxlove House, the residence of the Duke of Hamilton, was already long established when Fountainhall was just a glint in its architect’s eye, and its magnificent 14th-century barrel-vaulted Great Hall was the spectacular setting for a morning recital by the Consone String Quartet. In the six years since its foundation at the Royal College of Music, the Quartet has been exploring classical and early romantic repertoire on period instruments, championing in particular the early Schubert quartets and the chamber music of Luigi Boccherini.

Thus it was that they opened with Boccherini’s G-minor Quartet, a two-movement work with a wonderfully soulful Larghetto and a perky and rustic-sounding Minuet. Poor Boccherini has acquired the reputation of being a musical light-weight, but this near contemporary of Haydn is capable of genuinely touching melodies and engaging textures which suggest that his chamber music is deserving of more attention. The first half concluded with early Schubert, his C-major Quartet D46, which opens with a intriguingly dark fugal figure and continues to surprise with striking flashes of originality. The concluding Rondo features a genuine ear-worm, which we were all humming as we headed for interval refreshments, surrounded by the beautiful Hamilton art collection.

Another two-movement Quartet from Boccherini opened the second half – after the Danish String Quartet’s epic account of Beethoven’s op 132 Quartet a couple of days previously, a two movement work seemed eminently desirable! The ensemble had chosen another contemplative work in F-minor, and it duly worked its charms. The concert concluded with the second of Mendelssohn’s op. 44 Quartets, and its E-minor tonality made up a full afternoon of minor Quartets! As in the other works, the distinctive tone of the gut-strung instruments played with classical bows and authentic bowing techniques made perfect sense of the compositional style, with a wonderfully mellow singing tone combining with a thrilling attack without the shrillness sometimes associated with metal strings. The Consone String Quartet are worthy champions of their period instruments and of their chosen composers, and I found myself confirmed in my enthusiasm for the gut-strung sound as well as being newly inspired to investigate further the chamber music of Boccherini.

The first-class authentic/period instrument concerts in the Lammermuir Festival programme are of course just one strand of a dynamic and varied celebration stretching over ten days and incorporating a plethora of lovely venues. In addition to the concerts I reviewed in detail, I also enjoyed a wonderful concert in St Mary’s Haddington by the internationally renowned Scottish Chamber Orchestra directed by Cristian Macelaru. Performances of Mozart’s Haffner Symphony and Beethoven’s Second Symphony employed period brass and percussion instruments as well as historically informed bowing to bring this music vividly to life. It was a mark of this remarkable orchestra’s versatility that their accounts of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and Nielsen’s acerbic Clarinet Concerto with superb young soloist Mark Simpson were also stunning. Simpson returned a few days later to direct the SCO wind section in a programme including Mozart’s magisterial Partita for 13 Wind Instruments.

The Last Things – A Grand Finale

So how to bring this ninth Lammermuir Festival to a suitably spectacular conclusion? St Mary’s Collegiate Church was once again the venue, and the musical shoulders on which this responsibility fell were those of Stile Antico. This famously conductorless vocal ensemble enjoy an enviable reputation in the Early Music scene, and in this final Festival concert we were given a memorable demonstration of how this had been achieved. They had compiled a concert of Funeral music featuring Heinrich Schütz’s masterly Musikalische Exequien and J S Bach’s epic motet Jesu, meine Freude, but intriguingly including Renaissance polyphonic works in Latin which still featured prominently in Lutheran services in Bach’s Thomaskirche in Leipzig. These included the familiar Ecce quomodo moritur justus by Jacob Handl and Ego sum resurrectio by Hans Leo Hassler, as well as unknown but highly competent works by Ludwig Daser and Johann Knöfel. The former’s modestly dignified setting of Media vita and the latter’s richer In te Domine speravi were both impressive.

Stile Antico produce a wonderfully precise and intensely focussed sound, with a remarkable pinpoint accuracy and unanimity, which belies the absence of a conductor and seems to rely on a thorough familiarity with the music and an almost telepathic empathy. Their habit of standing in positions which ensure that they are never next to the others singing the same part also seems counterintuitive, but this scheme, most frequently involving boy/girl/boy/girl positioning like a mixer dinner-party, works spectacularly well. The group’s chosen repertoire saw every member of the choir singing a solo of one kind or another, and as a choir director I was struck by the great variety in the tone quality of the individual voices. All the more remarkable that they blended so perfectly in a full consort sound, and with no hint of vibrato! Mention should also be made of the excellent instrumental contributions in the Schütz – wonderfully incisive and expressive playing on the theorbo by James Aikers, and fine sympathetic performances on the chamber organ by Oliver-John Ruthven and on the violone by Kate Aldridge, both of whom also made a valuable contribution to the Bach.

A fine opening account of Lassus’ Justorum animae established the group’s superlative ensemble credentials, but in the course of the Schütz this was complemented with frequently ornate one-to-a-part sections, in which the singers rose to the challenge of a more solistic style, frequently decorating their lines in an impressive and authentic manner. Although the Bach motet was probably the most spectacular music of the evening, it was the Schütz, which I found most involving and indeed deeply moving. However it was with the pared-down poise and elegance of an Elizabethan hymn in our ears that we left the 2018 Lammermuir Festival, as a lavish and well-deserved ovation persuaded the ensemble to leave us with Thomas Campion’s powerful Never weather-beaten Sail.

Plans are already underway for next year’s Lammermuir Festival, which will be its 10th anniversary year. The organisers are faced with the enviable challenge of improving on an event, which has made such imaginative use of wonderful venues, filling them with appreciative audiences anxious to hear the distinctive, first-class performers they have managed to engage. Onwards and upwards!


Early Nights in Edinburgh

D James Ross at the Edinburgh International Festival 2018

A Pair of Period Pianos

To be able to host two of the four ‘big beasts’ of the early piano world within four days of one another is the prerogative of an international festival, and we were uniquely privileged to be able to compare recitals by Ronald Brautigam and Robert Levin at Edinburgh’s attractive Queen’s Hall. Brautigam was playing a beautiful Erard piano of 1837 from the collection of Edwin Beunk, an instrument which was a feast for the eyes much admired by the audience before the recital even started. It turned out to be an equal aural treat, when Brautigan opened his performance with Mendelssohn’s Rondo capriccioso. A full tone in the middle register, with an added edge in the bottom range and a delightfully light upper register allowed the instrument to reveal the innermost secrets of the works by Mendelssohn and Chopin which made up the programmne, while Brautigam’s stunning technique and deft pedalling provided further revelations. Chopin’s B flat minor Scherzo  op. 31 provided a brilliant introduction to the two Nocturnes  of opus 27, where I have never heard the distinctive undulating arpeggios performed with more clarity and eloquence. Mendelssohn’s impressive Variations sérieuses  op 54 brought the first half to a spectacularly virtuosic conclusion.

The Six Songs without Words  op 19 proved a wonderfully melodic opening to the second half, with the venerable Erard fairly singing out Mendelssohn’s lyrical melodies, while Chopin’s op 60 Barcarolle  and op 57 Berceuse  continued in a similarly gentle vein. Brautigam’s wonderfully compelling and flamboyantly executed performance concluded appropriately with Chopin’s showy Polonaise-fantaisie  op 61 – a compositional and performance tour de force. A further delightful Barcarolle  provided a suitably calming encore.

The Queen’s Hall also hosted an all-Mozart recital by Robert Levin, this time on a modern copy by Paul McNulty of an 1805 fortepiano by Anton Walter & Sohn. The contrast in sound between this instrument and the 1837 Erard was striking, as Robert Levin conjured wonderfully silvery tones from an instrument which turned out to have a wonderfully percussive bass register and a charmingly rapid decay. In his witty verbal introduction, Levin cited a keyboard tutor by CPE Bach in which he advocates lavish ornamentation of repeats and valuably provides examples, which prove to be radical departures from the originals. Levin pithily explained why he was playing from printed music – ‘I need to know what not to play in the repeats!’ With improvisation high on the agenda, Levin had compiled an ingenious programme juxtaposing three Mozart sonatas with the composer’s flamboyant Four Preludes K284a. The recital opened a short piece reconstructed by Levin from a liminal fragment notated in a manuscript of the composer’s Grabmusik. The cascades of scales and arpeggios in the Preludes seemed to prefigure the keyboard fireworks of Chopin, and surely provide us with a rare window on Mozart’s much-admired skills as an improviser. Levin’s own stunning powers of improvisation in the repeat sections of the Sonatas were nothing less than breathtaking, surely showing the way for future performances of these concert staples. Mozart’s own piano arrangement of the overture to Die Entführung aus dem Serail gave full rein to the clashing bass register, seeming almost to beg for one of the pianos of the time which featured Turkish percussion effects! If Levin’s laudable decision to group the pieces together and his slightly annoying mannerism of rushing to cadences led to a slightly breathless impression, this was a recital which was never less than exciting and frequently absolutely thrilling. An enthusiastic ovation elicited an unusual encore – Levin had transcribed the music from the famous portrait of the boy Mozart in red livery and looking hauntingly straight at the viewer. It turned out to be a youthful showpiece, surely designed to advertise the boy’s precocious compositional skills.

A Biblical Epic

If you will forgive the innuendo, Samson  uncut is surprisingly huge. This became apparent as we sat down to the Dunedin Consort’s performance of Handel’s oratorio, which was projected to last no less than four hours. Written around the same time as Messiah, Samson has never enjoyed the success it deserves, and with the exception of the last two numbers, the spectacular show-aria Let the Bright Seraphim  and the ensuing chorus Let their Celestial Consorts all unite  little of the music has entered the standard repertoire. As I sat through a series of very fine arias and choruses I found myself musing upon why this vintage Handel isn’t more mainstream. One problem is that all the drama happens off-stage – Samson is already blinded and defeated when we first encounter him, and the concluding destruction of the temple is reduced to ‘noises off’. The unrelentingly melancholy subject, only very latterly transformed to triumph, also makes for painful listening. I found myself tearing up as Samson considered his blindness, singing heartrending words by blind Milton to moving music by Handel, already losing his sight, and who also would be blind within a few years. Paul Appleby’s account of the air Total Eclipse, as indeed his interpretation of the complex character of Samson, was immensely powerful, while his vocal technique in a long and demanding role was stunning. Sophie Bevan in the dramatically thankless role of Delila was simply superb as she purred, trilled and cooed her way through her seduction aria With plaintive notes, earning her the only individual ovation of the evening. Matthew Brook’s well-gauged Manoa, Samson’s father, was a powerful presence. Alice Coote, by contrast, seemed less comfortable in the role of Micah, composed by Handel for Mrs Cibber, although she did grow into the part as the piece advanced. Mhairi Lawson was an excellent stand-in second Philistine/Israelite Woman, and Hugo Hymas was vocally well cast as Israelite/Philistine Man. Of course, Louise Alder gets the best music in the show, Let the Bright Seraphim, a wonderfully sparkling show-stopper of an aria with obligato clarino trumpet, which is a gift to a soprano with the technique to enjoy it to the full. Wisely employing the Harry Christophers solution of segueing from the b-section of the aria straight into the concluding chorus ensured that the piece came to a terrific climax, and a deafening and extended ovation from the Usher Hall audience

As always with the Dunedin forces it seems, the orchestral playing was consistently superb under the detailed direction of John Butt, with wonderfully expressive string playing and fine contributions from bassoon, oboes, trumpets and a pair of wonderfully rumbustious horns, not always pinpoint accurate but infectiously energetic. Thomas Pitt and Stephen Farr provided unerringly supportive continuo playing, while the latter was also the organ soloist in the movements from Handel’s organ concertos that graced the intervals. This was a fascinating Dunedin experiment, copying Handel in filling intermissions with instrumental works, on this occasion on a copy by Goetz and Gwynn of an organ owned by Handel’s librettist Jennens, during which the audience was encouraged to walk around and chat. You will be pleased to hear that your reviewer selflessly eschewed a visit to the bar to move to the front to hear the organ more clearly! Perhaps the ultimate jewel in the crown of this superb performance was the singing of the Dunedin Consort chorus, twenty-four young singers who produced an impeccably accurate and wonderfully gleaming sound throughout. This was a lot of Handel to take in at one go, but it was very good Handel and wonderfully performed by Edinburgh’s local Baroque heroes, the Dunedin Consort.

A Beggar’s Opera for our times?

As the late great Nikolaus Harnoncourt said in a verbal introduction to a period performance of Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, ‘What would musicians have to do to surprise an audience to the same degree as an audience of the time was surprised by a loud chord?’. Leaving the question hanging, he started the piece, letting off a loud indoor firework at the relevant moment in the slow movement, smiling conspiratorially as the audience, aware of the recent terrorist bombings, screamed in shock. In many ways it is depressing how easily Gay and Rich’s social satire, The Beggar’s Opera  transfers to our own times. However the version performed in the King’s Theatre by the instrumentalists of Les Arts Florissants and the actors of Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord used a modernised edition by Ian Burton and Robert Carson in which much ‘f-ing and blinding’, street dancing, drugs deals, texting and social networking sought to place the piece in the same shocking relationship with a modern audience as the original work had enjoyed with the 18th-century public. And I think with a few reservations that it succeeded very well.

The stage was filled with a sheer cliff face of cardboard boxes at the foot of which slept a beggar, and through the action the boxes provided a very serviceable set of props and settings for the action. An onstage band of period instrumentalists sat at boxes with tablets propped up on them with their music, and provided beautifully energetic accounts of the ballad airs and dances. The singing actors of the cast coped generally very well with the musical aspects of the show, although just once or twice the geography of the set led to timing or tuning going a little adrift. Evoking a mixture of Eastenders  and TOWIE  (Google it…), Robert Burt as Peachum and Beverley Klein as his wife provided wonderfully sleazy central characters, always teetering on the edge of violence. Kate Batter’s vulnerable but equally sleazy Polly and Benjamin Purkiss’s dashingly macho Macheath were strongly characterised, while the host of whores, gangsters and corrupt officials that seethe around them were vividly brought to life by a gifted and versatile cast. The athletic street dancing of the behoodied gang was particularly effective.

To my mind, it was a mistake to cut the Beggar and his prologue, as the lack of framework left a problem at the end, not convincingly solved by a change of government and all the beggars becoming cabinet ministers – ironically not as preposterous a conclusion as Gay and Rich’s original cynically contrived ending. Indeed the wit and cynicism of the 18th-century original shone through this performance, which remained almost entirely true to the narrative and many of the resonances of the text, while retaining the original song texts with just a few minor tweaks. As promised in the promotion, the musical dimension did have a fine improvisatory quality, in which the two Baroque violins, viola, cello and double bass joined by a recorder, an oboe, an archlute and percussion all directed from the harpsichord by Florian Carré sounded wonderfully spontaneous and energetic. If the band occasionally came across as a little underpowered against the ‘mic’d up’ voices in the theatre acoustic, the playing was always wonderfully expressive and imaginative, with very effective elaborations and ornamentation.

This riotous outing at the end of my Festival visit seemed a million miles away from the world of the elegant period piano recitals with which I have begun, but this has got to be the chief joy of an international festival, which can offer such variety even within the realm of early music. And bear in mind that while I was attending events in the ‘official’ Festival, on the Fringe elsewhere in town the Edinburgh Renaissance Band were wowing the crowds with innovative early programmes, and Cappella Nova were filling Greyfriars Kirk with the distinctive tones of Robert Carver!

D. James Ross


Itinéraire Baroque 2018

Dordogne, France 26-29 July 2018

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]f many surprising features of the summer of 2018, few have excelled the strange experience of travelling from a parched, sun-scorched Britain basking in (or suffering from) an extreme heat-wave to the lush green of the equally sun-blessed woods and rolling hills of the Périgord vert, the most northern region of the Dordogne. It is there that the Itinéraire Baroque festival founded 17 summers ago by Ton Koopman takes place in the villages and hamlets of the area, invariably utilising the many Romanesque churches that adorn the Périgord vert.

The programme for my third visit to Itinéraire Baroque (my account of the 2016 festival can also be found on this site) had Spanish culture as an overarching theme, although no Spanish music featured in the opening concert on 26 July at the Romanesque (although much altered) abbey church of St Cybard in Cercles. Given by members of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra under Koopman, it did, however, adhere to what was virtually a subtext of the festival – music for exotic instruments or unusual instrumental combinations. Thus this concert included concertos by Telemann for oboe d’amore and two chalumeaux, by Gregor Werner (Haydn’s predecessor at Esterhazy) for two organs and two chalumeaux and a concerto for trombone by Albrechtsberger, the Classical style of which stood in stark contrast to the surrounding Baroque repertoire. In addition, the pleasingly light-voiced tenor Tilman Lichdi sang a folk-like strophic song of Werner and an undistinguished extract from one of his oratorios. Neither tested him to anything like the same extent as Bach’s Cantata No.55 ‘Ich armer Mensch’, where technical fallibilities were at times cruelly exposed. Nonetheless, the concert made for an enjoyable start to the festival, especially in the well-played Telemann concertos and Alessandro Marcello’s well-known Oboe Concerto in D minor.

St Cybard is very much ‘home base’ of the Festival, its delightful linden- shaded square filled during its course by ‘Café baroque’, where food, drink and stalls selling local bio produce are located. Such facilities proved much in demand at the lunchtime concert the following day, played by the chamber ensemble L’Astrée, who with soprano Julia Wischiewski gave a programme of Vivaldi trio sonatas and chamber cantatas. The instrumental part of the concert provided for me the most satisfying music making of the festival, with vital, well-articulated playing by violinist Paola Nervi and cellist Rebecca Ferri in quicker movements and truly eloquent playing in slower movements such as the exquisite Sarabanda of the Sonata in D minor, RV27, where the interplay between the two was totally engaging. I much liked, too, the tasteful ornamentation added to repeats. Despite some expressive singing and confident execution of passaggi, the cantatas were less satisfying. Wischiewski’s soprano was too often unevenly produced, her diction less than clear, while her ornamentation was often waywardly unstylish.

Following an afternoon devoted to a lecture on Spanish Baroque music and a concert devoted to music and dances in period costume from Spain and southern France – neither of which I attended – the evening concert found Koopman and his wife (and former pupil) Tini Mathot giving a recital for two organs and two harpsichords entitled ‘The Master and his Pupil’. Thus we heard music by, among others, J. S. Bach (the Prelude and Fugue in C, BWV 547, curiously played on harpsichords rather than organ) and W. F. Bach (a solo Concerto in F), Armand-Lous Couperin, who was taught by his father Nicholas, one of the great Couperin dynasty, and Antonio Soler, the most famous pupil of Alessandro Scarlatti. It was Soler who provided the meat of the programme, in quantity, if not substance, too much of his music being inconsequential, at times to a degree of banality. Both here and in organ works by Cabanilles and Perez de Albeniz the portative organs used by Mathot and Koopman were a monochrome substitute for the colourfully exotic sound of Spanish organs of the period.

The Saturday of the festival gives it its name and (to the best of my knowledge) unique feature, the day consisting of staggered visits to six venues, in most cases a small rural church of Romanesque origin. At each of these a short concert – preceded by a brief introduction to the building – is given by performers who remain in the same location for the day. It however started in the town church of Mareuil, where before being divided for the tour a large audience assembled to hear a selection of solo recorder music from Jacob van Eyck’s ‘Der fluyten lustof’ (well played by Reine-Marie Verhagen), music with which I confidently expect to be punished for all eternity should I end up in one of the circles of Dante’s Hell. Our first stop was the little church at Graulges, Romanesque at heart, but much restored. Judging from reaction I heard, the concert of 17th-century Italian and Dutch sonatas played by the gifted Ensemble Clematis was probably the most popular of the day. To me, however, it was a further depressing example of how young players still ignore the difference between all-purpose period instrument string playing and the special demands of 17th-century music. This applies especially to an ensemble like Clematis that specializes in this repertoire, when it can only be viewed as the lazy option that is to be deplored.

© Jean-Michel Bale: Fred Jacobs

If this was a disappointment, the following event in the beautiful little chapel of St John the Baptist in the village of Puyrénier came as a pleasant surprise. Here Fred Jacobs, one of the doyens of the lute world, played a beguiling recital of works by Sor (mostly) and Giuliani on a Romantic guitar built in 1820. This is not repertoire I have explored in any depth, but here was struck by the sheer inventiveness of Sor in particular and the beauty of tone Jacobs produced throughout, especially in more contemplative pieces like the Cantabile, op 42/1.

Following a lunch break, the first of the afternoon concerts took as back to the outskirts of Mareuil and the church Saint Sulpice, where the Swiss ensemble Albori Musical played works by Vivaldi and Telemann and a sonata by Pierre Prowo formerly attributed to Telemann. Moderately accomplished playing failed to disguise the fact that the rhythmically four-square and often somewhat inexpressive performances rarely caught fire.

© Jean-Michael Bale: Franziska Fleischanderl

There was nothing inexpressive about the penultimate visit to the charming simplicity of the little church of Connezac, once the chapel of the eponymous chateau. Within its intimate surroundings the Austrian dulcimer player Franziska Fleischanderl illustrated with captivating charm its capabilities both in her playing and introductions. Particularly interesting was the great difference in sonority dependent on whether the instrument is plucked or struck with hammers, while the range of subtly modulated sound that can be cajoled from it in the hands of an obvious expert was strongly projected.

© Jean-Michael Bale: Capella Trajectina

The final concert took place en plein air  alongside the walls of the largely 15th-century Chateau D’Aucors. Given by Dutch group Camerata Trajectina, it introduced a programme based around the 16th-century struggle of the Netherlands to free itself from Spanish domination. Much more interesting historically than musically – it included a number of what we would today term protest songs – it was entertainingly projected by the experienced Heike Meppelink (soprano) and Nico van der Meel (tenor).

An early flight the following morning determined that I missed the final concert, a typical Koopman mix of Bach Orchestral Suites and Brandenburgs. But once again Itinéraire Baroque, with its loyal and enthusiastic audience playing a full part, had proved a captivating experience that can be enthusiastically recommended to anyone seeking an unusual musical holiday in one of the most beguiling parts of the Dordogne.

Brian Robins


The Saintes Festival 2018

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]lthough a veteran of French music festivals, particularly during the decade-plus one we lived in France, Saintes is one I had never previously visited until this year. Situated in the south-west in the departement  of Charente-Maritime, Saintes dates back to the days when it was the first Roman capital of Aquitane, a past still in evidence today in the shape of the imposing Arch of Germanicus (AD18-19) and an amphitheatre dating back to AD40-50. Other architectural treasures include the late-Gothic cathedral of Saint-Pierre, which lies to one side of the attractive old town and the Abbaye aux Dames, originally the site of a Benedictine order of nuns founded in 1047.

It is this last that is of the most interest to this report, for today it is the home of what is known as ‘la cité musicale’, a complex centred around the abbey church, a building that has survived many a vicissitude during the course of its long history, and the 17th century residential block. Today, as at Ambronay, that is put to service for the accommodation of visiting performers and other visitors, while its ground floor also incorporates an auditorium used for smaller-scale concerts.

A constant feature of the annual festival, held this year over nine days in the middle of July, is a focus on the music of Bach, while 2018 also paid special attention to British composers and artists, among the latter Carolyn Sampson, to whose concert we’ll return below. On most days large audiences, most of whose members appear to come for at least several days (we constantly saw the same people during the three days we were there), have a choice of four concerts. While the emphasis is on Baroque music or that of later periods played on period instruments, the festival is not exclusively devoted to early music, as names such as Debussy, Kurtag, Ligeti and Xenakis readily testify.

This applied, too, to the first concert we attended after arriving on 19 July. Carolyn Sampson has long been one of the treasures of the British early music scene, but here, capably accompanied by the pianist Joseph Middleton, she was on rather less familiar territory in a programme of 20th century English song. I have to confess it is a long time since such repertoire formed part of my regular listening and I fear that even Sampson failed to win me over to Walton’s Songs for the Lord Mayor’s Table or three of the Façade settings; indeed in the case of the latter I’m still wondering what the audience made of the French translations of Edith Sitwell’s bizarre verse. Groups by Bridge and Quilter fell pleasingly on the ear given Sampson’s consummate artistry, but it took Vaughan Williams’ ‘Orpheus with his lute’ and a dreamy ‘Silent Noon’ (some exquisite mezza voce  here – and indeed elsewhere) to strike at the heart.

The later evening concert, a free performance of Handel’s Water Music and the Harp Concerto, op 4/6 arranged for flute by conductor Hugo Reyne, had been scheduled to take place in the abbey gardens, but doubtful weather necessitated it being moved to the abbey. Given by Reyne’s orchestra La Simphonie du Marais and accompanied by the conductor’s introduction (he appeared wearing a yachtsman’s cap) and commentary – we were shown what horns and natural trumpets look like – the concert would doubtless have worked much better outside. As it was the juxtaposition of Reyne’s childish jokes, some hair-raisingly fast tempos and some less than persuasive playing (some of the wind playing was rough enough to sink the barge) made for an irritating end to a long day. To be fair, it has to be recorded that the capacity audience loved it all.

Ronald Brautigam & Le Jeune Orchestre de l’Abbaye aux Dames, dir. Michael Willens © Sébastien Laval

One of the most admirable features of the Saintes Festival is the encouragement it gives to the development of young musicians. Since 1996 the festival has had its own period instrument orchestra, Le Jeune Orchestre de l’Abbaye aux Dames. Formed to perform Classical and Romantic music, its membership is international and it has had the advantage of working under conductors such as Christopher Hogwood, Marc Minkowski and, especially, Philippe Herreweghe, who from 1981 to 2002 was artistic director of the Festival. This year it gave three concerts, the one we heard at the early afternoon concert on 20 July being devoted to composers who existed ‘in the shadow of Beethoven’ and the great man himself, represented by his Piano Concerto no. 4, magisterially played on an unidentified large grand fortepiano by Ronald Brautigam. The quasi-recitative central movement came off especially well, while the Rondo finale was launched with great verve. The young orchestra, some 60-strong played with a youthful panache and splendid finish under the baton of Michael Willens. Earlier the orchestra responded with engaging fervour to the early romantic freshness of E T A Hoffman’s Ondine  overture with splendidly alert playing, the wistful reprise of the principal subject lingering particularly in the mind. An immensely satisfying concert concluded with another rarity, the Symphony No. 4, op 60 by Jan Kalliwoda. Dating from 1835, the work explores all the typical gestures of the full-blown romantic symphony: the mysterious slow introduction rising from the bass, the long sustained horn calls in the Romanze second movement, while also paying due homage to the composer’s native Bohemia in the Harmoniemusik  writing of the finale. If the work carries a suggestion of déjà vu, it nonetheless makes for agreeable listening, particularly when played with as much vitality as it was here. The evening brought an even greater rarity, a performance of Issé, the first opera – and in the view of many of his contemporaries the best – of André-Cardinal Destouches. Originally composed in 1697, it was heard here in a revised version dating from 1708. Since I’ve reviewed the fine performance by Les Surprises under their director Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas elsewhere, I’ll here merely record that regrettably it was done with significant cuts and that there will be an opportunity to hear it again with a more starry cast at Versailles in October.

The final morning of the Festival brought further uplifting evidence of the encouragement offered to youthful music making, in this case at an even earlier age. During the week-long course of the Festival, some 60 children aged between 7 or 8 and adolescence rehearse a programme presented twice to audiences in the Auditorium on the last day. It is not a repertoire for faint hearts either, several of the items requiring part singing and one very much in a contemporary idiom. But what is especially heartening was the introduction of the great classical repertoire, so, for example, the older children sang Purcell’s ‘Sound the Trumpet’ (with very good English diction), and two extracts from the Pergolesi Stabat Mater. Given the timescale, the results the tutors achieved were little short of astounding.

Early afternoon found us back in the abbey for performances of two of Bach’s Missa breve’s, BWV 234 and BWV 236. They were given by the ensemble Vox Luminus, here comprising three singers per part and directed from among the basses by Lionel Meunier. The orchestra, Andrew Parrott would be pleased to learn, numbered slightly more than the singers, though not on the scale of his ratio. One of the advantages of being directed unobtrusively from the choir is the special need for the singers to be fully aware of what is happening in the other parts. Here that paid off in performances that were at their best in the choral sections, where balance was also excellent. The opening entries of the Kyrie of BWV 234, for example, were beautifully judged, the succeeding chromatic writing splendidly exposed. With the exception of the ‘Domine Deus’ duet in the same Mass, beautifully done by soprano Caroline Weynants and alto Jan Kullmann, solo sections were less satisfying, several soloists displaying weak tone and poor articulation of ornaments. The orchestra played admirably throughout.

If revisiting repertoire long neglected was something of a theme of my visit to Saintes that was never truer than at the last concert, given by Herreweghe and his outstanding Orchestre des Champs-Élysées. Never anything like a perfect Wagnerian, I have reached that stage of my life when I’m not that concerned about listening to his music. So I faced the prospect of a performance of the Wesendonck Lieder  with, shall we say, muted expectation. How wrong I was! Given by the Dutch soprano Kelly God, this was a glorious performance of these Tristan und Isolde-related songs, with their glutinously decadent poetry. The overwhelming beauty of God’s singing was that it avoided totally any such viscous implications, the tone soaring with a purity and lack of intrusive vibrato that made for endlessly engaging and enthralled listening. The final act of the 2018 Festival was a performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4. Bruckner’s symphonies, with massive organ-inspired sonorities, huge unisons and constant ebb and flow of extremes of sound are of course made for just such a building as the Abbaye aux Dames. Herreweghe’s breadth of conception, allied to the sharper focus possible with period instruments made this a performance as memorable for the delicacy of the string playing in the Andante (ii), for the thrilling horns in the Scherzo (iii) or the overwhelming climaxes of the opening and last movements. It made for a fitting climax to what I hope was the first of many visits to the hospitable Saintes Festival.

Brian Robins