Regensburg: Tage Alter Musik
22-25 May 2015
For those with limited time but an insatiable urge to attend early music concerts, I can recommend the Tage Alter Musik festival in the delightful Danube city of Regensburg (the entire city centre is a World Heritage site). With no fewer than 17 concerts in just 4 days, this is not for the faint-hearted. But the musical rewards and the historical venues (which include extreme Baroque, austere Gothic and the Reichssaal, for centuries the seat of the Parliament of the Holy Roman Empire) are worth the attempt.
Friday 22 May
As is traditional with Tage Alter Musik (now in its 31st year), the weekend started with the Regensburger Domspatzen, the famed boys’ choir of the Cathedral, on this occasion paired with L’Orfeo Barockorchester (from Austria) for a programme of Mozart (in the Baroque Dreieinigkeitskirche, 8pm). They opened with a series of small-scale pieces (Regina Coeli, Exsultate jubilante (in the 1779 Salzburg version), Sub tuum praesidium and Veni Sancte Spiritu), before the concluding Missa solemnis. Soprano Yeree Suh had most of the solos in the first half, although I found her voice a little too operatic for this music, with its fairly prominent vibrato (which she used in place of trills) and frequent portamento. Tenor Gustavo Martín-Sánchez, bass Joachim Höchbauer and an unnamed boy alto from the Domspatzen were more stylishly appropriate. The boys’ choir sang with a rounded tone rather than the slightly harsh chest voice sometimes associated with German boys’ choirs. The orchestra were impressive, as was the direction of the Domkapellmeister, Roland Büchner, notably in not allowing Mozart’s rather hurried rush through the Mass text to become too hectic. The Missa solemnis was preceded by the Church Sonata (KV 336), apparently intended to be performed with the Missa, although it was a shame that they didn’t segue it straight into the Mass. Stefan Baier was the organ soloist, his rhapsodic cadenza rather curiously completely changing the style and mood of the music that it was intended to grow from.
The first of the weekend’s late night (10.45pm) concerts featured the Israeli/Swiss group Profeti della Quinta (in the Schottenkirche, with its extraordinary medieval portal sculptures), with Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s Lamentations and Responsories, dating from around 1600). Reflecting a period of musical transition, Cavalieri’s music combines and contrasts Renaissance polyphony with the developing early Baroque monody and the stilo recitativo. The expansive incipits (the vocalised Hebrew letters that start each verse) are particularly attractive little polyphonic gems. Cavalieri’s exquisitely expressive writing features elements of the early Italian opera style as well as some fascinating harmonic twists and turns. He treats the texts as musical pictures, an aspect that Profeti della Quinta explored well in their performance. The combination of a soprano and high counter-tenor (Perrine Devillers and Doron Schleifer) for the two cantus voices was particularly effective. The five singers were supported by a continuo group of harpsichord, organ, chitarrone, lirone and viola da gamba. Each of the three Lamentation sets was introduced by an organ Intonatione and Ricercar by Frescobaldi, stylishly played by Aki Noda.
Saturday 23 May
The sugar-icing baroquery of the Alten Kapelle was the setting for the solo violin recital by Rachel Podger (11am), playing pieces from her ‘Guardian Angel’ CD. Before she started playing, she wandered around the entire audience giving everybody a huge hug. She didn’t, of course, but it felt like that, given the warmth of her broad grin and inclusive approach to her audience. Here was a player who wanted us all to feel involved. She opened with her own arrangement of Bach’s Partita for solo flute in A minor, transposed down to G for a violin performance that worked surprisingly well. Tartini’s Sonata in A minor completed the first half. Although stated as being senza Basso, the extent of double stopping produced a convincing bass line to the treble melodies. The second half opened with the Passacaglia from Biber’s Rosenkranzsonaten, given an exquisite performance with the magical ending of a delicate slow arpeggio. Bach’s Partita 2 in D minor concluded the concert, with its final Chaconne, the conclusion of a sequence of movements that had moved from bustling, to delicate charm, to scurrying to concluding grandeur, with Podger catching the mood to perfection. One of Rachel Podger’s characteristic uplifted-bow flourishes misled some in the audience to applaud, thinking she had finished after the penultimate Giga. Rachel Podger’s expressive and communicative playing features a fluid and flexible sense of musical line. She lingers on key notes just long enough to anchor both the harmony and the rhythmic pulse, but never disturbing the latter.
In their early afternoon open air concert the German group Echo du Danube give their programme ‘Alla Napolitana: Naples: melting pot of cultures’ (2pm). Appropriately, given their name, it was given on the other side of the Danube in the courtyard of the St Magn Kloster (now the Hochschule für Katholische Kirchenmusik). After the catchy rhythms of Valente’s Gagliarda Napolitana from the six instrumentalists, we heard Francesco Provenzale’s parody Squarciato appena havea, sung beautifully by the Italian soprano Francesca Boncompagni. A lively sequence of contrasting pieces followed, with Francesca Boncompagni’s expressive, clear and agile voice being a distinctive feature, and one that attracted a bird to join in. The accompaniments and instrumental pieces were well played, the distinctive sound of Elisabeth Seitz’s salterio (hammered dulcimer) being a feature, as was some energetic viola da gamba playing by Christian Zincke. I also liked the subtle and unobtrusive percussion contributions from Michèle Claude.
We next had the chance to explore one of the earliest repertoires of the weekend, with the programme ‘Colours in the dark – the sound world of Alexander Agricola’ (1445/6-1506) given by Ensemble Leones in St. Oswald’s Church (4pm). Formed from former students of the Schola Cantorum in Basel, Ensemble Leones specialise in music of the Medieval and Renaissance periods. The much-travelled Agricola worked at an interesting period in musical development, providing a musical link between the late Burgundian school of composers and the imitative style of Josquin. Time spent in Italy, France and the Low Countries expanded his musical horizons. The programme was based around three sets of instrumental pieces that were preceded by the vocal work upon which they were based, together with other separate instrumental pieces. The first group were five instrumental settings (four by Agricola) of Ghizeghem’s chanson De tous biens plaine, followed by Agricola’s versions of an anonymous Tandernaken and Frye’s Tout a par moy. The other instrumental pieces included a lively imitative duo for vielle and zinc and Agricola’s extraordinarily inventive Cecus non judicat de coloribus, with its compelling mixture of polyphony, homophony and imitative writing for three instruments that could pass for a much later instrumental Fantasia. The instruments used by Ensemble Leones included a Renaissance violin and vielle, three violas d’arco, the twang of the Gothic harp, zink (cornett), and the plucked quinterne and citra (gittern/cittern), the arrival of the zink coming, rather effectively, about halfway through the concert. This was music to exercise the brain, rather than to merely entertain, the rather serious demeanour of the performers supporting this mood. Not even the noisy flapping of a pigeon that had managed to trap itself between two window panes at the back of the church, managed to put them off.
In complete contrast to the rather austere music of Agricola, the Saturday mid-evening concert focused on Mozart and some of his lesser-known contemporaries, given by the Polish orchestra Musica Humana 430 with Stefania Neonato (Italy) playing fortepiano in Vanhal’s Concerto in C. (in the Classical Neuhaussaal, 8pm). It is not fair to judge a composer on a piece called Pantomine, written when he was about 15 for a carnival, but at least Joseph Martin Kraus’s opening piece was mercifully short. It started with dramatic intent in the Sturm und Drang mode, but that soon fizzled out. Unfortunately for Kraus, it was followed by Mozart’s Symphony 29 in A, the difference in composing skill being all too apparent. After the interval we heard the Vanhal piano concerto (with its attractive and expansive Adagio) and the Symphony in B flat major by the prolific Moravian composer, Paul Wranitzky (born Pavel Vranický). The latter was an interesting work, with a rather rhapsodic and dark Adagio which included some obviously tricky horn passages. The concluding Allegro gave a light-hearted sense of relief. Although the music was interesting, I wasn’t overly impressed by the orchestra. Although the individual players were fine, the direction, by their concertmaster, didn’t really mould them into a coherent whole. Their anarchic and raucous tuning up was just one thing that could be improved.
The fifth, and final, Saturday concert was given by the UK’s Marian Consort & Rose Consort of Viols and their programme ‘An Emerald in a Work of Gold’, given in the enormous Gothic Dominikanerkirche (10.45pm). The music was drawn from the Robert Dow partbooks, copied in the mid-1580s and now housed in the library of Christ Church, Oxford. As well as being a major source of music of the period, Dow’s manuscripts are remarkable examples of musical calligraphy. The music is indicated as being suitable for voices and viols, so the pairing of the Marian and Rose Consorts was apt and made for an extremely effective and, at times, very moving occasion – and one that attracted an astonishing 800 people. The concert opened with the magical sound of a solo soprano singing from the organ gallery at the back of the church with the alternatim verses of Robert White’s Christe, qui lux es et Dies – an appropriate text, given the hour. The clear and focussed voice of soprano Emma Walshe proved to be the continuing highlight of the evening (in, for example, Tallis’s O salutaris hostia). Unfortunately her fellow soprano used rather too much vibrato for my tastes – and, I suggest, for the style of the music that the Marian Consort specialise in. The vast acoustic of the Dominikanerkirche is not easy to sing into, and is very different from the sort of Oxbridge colleges that these young singers were probably weaned in. But they coped magnificently, giving clarity to the lower voices, reining in the higher soprano pitches, letting cadences fade into the acoustic, and not trying to force their voices into the space. It was also good that, with one exception, the audience responded to their lack of encouragement to applaud between pieces, the exception coming with a single clap after choir director Rory McCleery’s lovely singing of Byrd’s, touching Lulla, lullaby, My sweet little Baby. As well as providing sensitive accompaniments to the vocal works, the Rose Consort’s intimate viol pieces sounded well in the space, the keen tone cutting through the acoustic with a clarity that a singer can only hope to attempt.
Sunday 24 May
Sunday featured no fewer than seven concerts, starting with a ‘Concert at the Hapsburg court of the 17th century’ given by the young French group Ensemble Stravaganza (in the historic Reichssaal, 11am). It was an appropriate venue as, from 1663 to 1806, it was the seat of the Perpetual Diet of the Hapsburg Holy Roman Empire. Their programme focussed on the music of the Hapsburg Court in Vienna during the period after the accession of Ferdinand III in 1637. The concert included the harpsichord Lamentation faite sur la mort tres douloureuse de Sa Majeste Imperiale Ferdinand III by Froberger, one of many musical visitors to Regensburg. Other works focussed on the distinctive stylus phantasticus, with three violin sonatas by Biber and single sonatas by Schmelzer and Pandolfi Mealli (the La Castella sonata). This was an impressive performance by this young group, led by their violinist Domitille Gilon. As well as her excellent playing, I liked the fact that she remained a part of her group throughout, with no attempts at personal display or promotion. Her continuo colleagues were sensitive in their accompaniments, notably in providing neat little links between the various sections of the pieces. It was clear from this performance that Ensemble Stravaganza were well-deserved winners of the van Wassenaer Early Music Competition and the HIF Biber Competition. However, it was a shame that this was one of several concerts where a disrespectful photographer working for the festival disrupted proceedings, on this occasion by taking several noisy shots during the quiet introduction of the first piece. This is often an issue in Regensburg, and in some other festivals, and is frankly unforgiveable given the availability of sound-proofing camera covers or perfectly good cameras that do not make any noise.
I had to leave last years’ Monteverdi-themed Laus Polyphoniae festival in Antwerp before the final day, and therefore missed the three concerts by Concerto Palatino, directed by Joshua Rifkin, performing the Monteverdi 1610 Missa In illo tempore, followed by the Vespers presented in two parts; the Sacred Concertos in one concert and the Vespers and Magnificat in another. So I was glad to see that had come to Regensburg for a repeat. The three concerts had the same format as at Antwerp, and took place in the Dominikanerkirche at 2pm, 5.30pm and 10.45pm – in effect a concert that started at 2pm and finished around midnight, quite a task for those appearing in all three concerts. The performance was based on director Joshua Rifkin’s understanding of Monterverdi’s score, and resulted in a minimalist reading shorn of the accretions that directors usually add, with varying degrees of authenticity and musical success. There is something about the Monteverdi Vespers that brings musical pedants out of their burrows, each insisting that their view is absolutely right, and everybody else is wrong. So it is always refreshing to be challenged by hearing alternative versions. I take the view that there is probably no single correct way of performing this work, but there are plenty of incorrect ones.
Joshua Rifkin gets closer to what actually survives than do many directors, the latter under the reasonable argument that some aspects of performance seem to be omitted from the surviving evidence. Most of the music in all three concerts had the one-to-a-part voices accompanied by the organ alone (well-played by Marcin Szelest), generally mirroring the vocal lines. And an interesting organ it was. Made by Walter Chinaglia, it had a full-length 8’ Principale with open wood pipes (producing the classic rather vocal Italian sound), together with a 4’ wooden open stop and a Regal. Not quite the sound of an Italian church organ that Monteverdi clearly intended, but nonetheless very effective in the quieter moments. The Missa in illo tempore had 7 singers, with 8 for the Sacri Concentus and 10 for the Vespro della beata vergine. The instrumentalists for the Sacred Concertos were two violinists, two cornetto and three posaune players, supported by a single Basso di viola da brazzo and the organ. An additional cornett, two flutes/recorders, three violas and a Contrabasso da gamba were added for the rest of the Vespers and the Magnificat.
Notable features included singing the ‘echo’ sections of Audi coelum at equal volumes from the left and right of the choral group gathered either side of the organ. The instrumental ‘echoes’ in the Magnificat were similarly treated, with no change in volume. Commendably, Rifkin took all the sesquialtera passages (when the pulse changes from duple to triple time) at what I consider the correct speed, far slower than is usually done, but exactly matching what the score and the tactus implies. Instrumentalists played the notes as written with few (if any) diminutions, elaborations or other displays of virtuosity. Similarly the organ kept to simple chords to support the singers. All the singers impressed, particularly soprano Gerlinde Sämann and tenor Charles Daniels. This was a fascinating performance, the intimacy of the forces and the musical approach drawing the listener in. It is a far more valid interpretation than many, although I hope it never becomes the only interpretation – I am sure that Monteverdi, like Bach, can absorb many different readings.
In between the first two Monteverdi concerts the Dresden based Batzdorfer Hofkapelle gave a programme called ‘My favourite Instrument – Handel and the Oboe’ (in the Basilika St. Emmeram) with Xenia Löffler, oboe, and Marie Friederike Schöder, soprano, (both, incidentally, represented by very youthful photographs in the programme). As the concert title suggested, all the works featured the oboe, either in concerto or obligato context. As with many concerts in the Tage Alter Musik, this concert was promoting a CD of the same title – and with the same youthful photo on the cover. If you run your own orchestra, and play an instrument, I suppose it is tempting to feature yourself as soloist in every piece, but at least one piece without the oboe would have made a refreshing contrast in this concert.
Before the final Monteverdi concert came ‘Corellimania’ given by Harmonie Universelle from Germany (Dreieinigkeitskirche, 8pm). The ‘mania’ of the programme’s title indicated the enormous influence that Corelli had on musicians throughout Europe, in this case as represented by Locatelli, Geminiani, Mossi and Vivaldi, whose concertos we heard alongside three from Corelli’s famed Opus 6 collection. Led by violinists Florian Deuter and Mónica Waisman, Harmonie Universelle produced a vigorous (and occasionally strident) sound, aided on this occasion by the addition of 2 trumpets and a trombone to the line-up, instruments not normally associated with Corelli, but apparently implied in the source. Of the offerings of the Corelli followers, the Concerto grosso in d (Op.3/3) by the little-known Giovanni Mossi was particularly interesting.
Monday 25 May
Monday’s series of concerts started in the Reichssaal with the programme “150 years of surprises in English counterpoint” given by the UK-based viol consort Phantasm, making their Regensburg debut. With music from the Elizabethan and Jacobean composers Tye, Gibbons, Byrd, Lawes and Jenkins we heard two contrasting routes to Purcell’s late 17th century resurgence in viol consort music with his extraordinary Fantasias that closed each half of the concert. With the exception of Jenkins, all the other composers had died well before Purcell was born. Apart from one issue, this was a fine performance, notable for some beautifully wrought cadences and some very professionally organised tuning up. The only issue for me was the prominence of the upper treble viol voice of the consort. This is music of equal interweaving parts, rather than for a solo treble viol and accompaniment, which was how it sounded for most of the time. This is something that does seem to happen when the leader of a group also plays what is, potentially, the most prominent musical line. Whether the top line should tone down, or whether fellow musicians should be encouraged to play with a similar degree of presence, depends on your view of consort music performance. Is this essentially domestic music-making one that needs to draw the audience into its rather intense and insular world – or does it need projecting to an audience that almost certainly would not have been there at the time?
The Monday afternoon concert was O quam gloriosum: Sacred vocal music of the Renaissance given by New York Polyphony in the vast space of the Minoritenkirche (2.15), one of several enormous Gothic churches used for Tage Alter Musik events. The “delighted to be with you” introduction to the audience, and the later invitation to buy their CDs and to follow them on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and their website, suggested a slightly different approach from the rather more staid European concert style. Perhaps because of their apparent emphasis on presentation, the musical side of the afternoon raised some issues. Big spaces do funny things to sound when it is forced into it –it is usually more effective to float the sound into the space and work with the acoustic, rather than trying to challenge it. Their manner of singing with a huge dynamic range, sometimes on a single note, really didn’t work. And the habit of each singer to exaggerate their own entry, often by crescendoing into it, made a mess of the polyphonic structure of the music. There was also a tendency to sing louder the higher they got, whereas the opposite is usually the best tactic. Rallentandos were excessive, and diction often varied between the four (male) singers. It was a shame, as the music by Guerrero, Victoria (the Missa: O quam gloriosum), Guerrero, Palestrina and Peñalosa’s Lamentations Hieremiae Prophetae was well worth listening to.
The penultimate concert of the festival was “Barbaric Beauty: Eastern European influence in music by Telemann, Jiranek, Graun and Hasse” given by the Italian group Il Suonar Parlante Orchestra, directed by viola da gamba player Vittorio Ghielmi (St. Oswald Kirche, 4pm). Telemann’s wide range of influences is well known, as his opening Concerto in a (for recorder, viola da gamba, strings and basso continuo, TWV 52: a1) demonstrated. The first indication that this concert was going to be rather different was the sudden crash of an extraordinary cadenza from a massive Cimbalom that has been lurking on the corner of the stage. Looking to be of a very much later generation than the composers in this programme, this instrument made its presence felt on several occasions. Dorothee Oberlinger was the Blockflöte soloist in this first piece and, until last part of the concert, was the finest of several soloists. That honour was challenged in the final medley of pieces by Telemann, Vivaldi, Benda and East European folk melodies (Barbarische Schönheit), when Slovakian folk/jazz violinist Stano Palùch stepped forward for a dazzling display of virtuosic folk playing, outshining all his classical colleagues.
The festival ended with the French orchestra Les Ambassadeurs and their programme Per l’Orchestra di Dresda (for the Orchestra of Dresden), taken from Vivaldi’s famous dedication of his Concerto per molti stromenti (Dreieinigkeitskirche, 8pm). Les Ambassadeurs based their programme on the extraordinary flourishing of music (and, indeed, all the arts) in early 18th century Dresden, powered by Augustus the Strong alongside his political ambitions. This was nothing if not colourful, with a selection of pieces by Vivaldi, Pisendel, Quantz, Telemann, Zelenka and Heinichen. Many pieces, including both Vivaldi Concertos, included the wonderful sound of a pair of horns, brilliantly played by Anneke Scott and Joseph Walters, producing a sound I don’t usually associate with Vivaldi. We also witnessed the most ithyphallic contrabassoon I have ever seen, played by Karl Nieler.
Zefira Valova was an outstanding violin soloist in several works, and was also a very effective concertmaster. The conductor, and occasional flute soloist, was Alexis Kossenko. I could hazard a guess as to who might have influenced his conducting style, but I found it particularly curious and distracting. Expressing his wishes through the medium of rather ungainly dance moves and a bizarre series of gestures, his wild gesticulations were a visual distraction. His habit of jabbing his fingers at his fellow musicians must have been rather off-putting for them. He looked particularly strange when he turned to direct his conducting antics towards the audience. That said, whether because or despite of all this, the band played with vigour and conviction. It has to be said that violin soloist Zefira Valova was also very balletic, but she somehow managed to carry it off with far more dignity and grace. It seems that the boundary between being lithe and expressive and just looking silly is clearly rather narrow.
And so ended the 31st Tage Alter Musik. As well as the concerts, there was a large scale exhibition of musical instrument makers and CDs in the historic Salzstadel. One possible issue for visitors from outside Germany is that the comprehensive programme book is only published in German. Next year’s festival is from 12-16 May, as usual over the Whitsun weekend. Further information can be found at http://www.tagealtermusik-regensburg.de/. Several of this year’s festival concerts are being broadcast on BR Klassik during July and August so should be available to listen to via the internet.