Laus Polyphoniae – Antwerp
This year, Antwerp’s annual Laus Polyphoniae festival, now in its 22nd year, celebrated one it can claim as its own (at least for a period): the music copyist Petrus Alamire, creator of some of the most extraordinary music manuscripts in the decades around 1500. Born in Nuremburg, Alamire (a musical alias of Peter Imhof: A-la-mi-re) soon moved to the Low Countries and quickly established himself as compiler of beautiful scores of music of Franco-Flemish composers, then at the peak of their importance. His clients included many of the crowned heads of Europe. His choirbooks contain more than 800 pieces, composed over a period of around 70 years, with the emphasis on masses, motets and chansons. Collectively they represent the development of the important Renaissance polyphonic style in the Low Countries and northern France.
Laus Polyphoniae is always more than just a series of concerts, and this year saw their remit at its greatest expanse, with a major international conference on Petrus Alamire ‘New Perspectives on Polyphony’ and a special exhibition in the recently restored Antwerp Cathedral of Alamire’s manuscripts (the result of years of research by the Alamire Foundation, the Centre for the Study of Music in the Low Countries and the University of Leuven). This was alongside their usual young musicians’ sessions, a performing summer school and events for babies and young people. Lasting from 19-30 August, I was able to get to the second half of the festival, from 25-30 August. The festival is organised by AMUZ (Augustinus Music Centre) which incorporates its administrative base with the former baroque church of St Augustine, its neo-Byzantine Winter Chapel now a bar/restaurant. Unless otherwise stated, all the concerts were held in AMUZ.
My first event was one of the more unusual concerts of the festival, Eric Sleichim & Marnix De Cat’s ‘Defiant angels’, performed on the Meztler organ in Antwerp Cathedral, a selection of three solo saxophones (including an enormous subcontrabass instrument which I think is called a ‘tubax’), and various bits of electronic jiggery-pokery (25 August). As Adolphe Sax was Belgian, this seemed an appropriate introduction to Antwerp. My initial confusion at what I was hearing was the result of the pieces being played in a very different order than that in the programme. I eventually worked out that it had started as I thought it would finish, with the title piece ‘Defiant angels, composed by saxophonist Eric Sleichim as a commission from the festival. An enveloping cloud of atmospheric electronic sounds and rumbles led to slowly evolving organ chords over a low pedal point, and then to the distant sound of a live saxophone processing down the aisle. The piece is based on a painting in the cathedral, which currently houses a major collection of paintings from the Antwerp Royal Fine Art Museum, currently under restoration. The rest of the programme was based on Mass settings based on the L’homme armé melody by composers including Busnois, Ockeghem, Brumel, Forestier, Josquin and Obrecht. Comparisons with the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek were inevitable although, in this case, for the L’homme armé pieces and Isaac’s Angeli archangeli throni, the saxophone just took one of the parts of the polyphonic pieces, the organ playing the rest (including a short improvisation).
The following evening saw the return to Laus Polyphoniae of Tasti Solo (winners of the 2006 International Young Artists Presentation) with their programme La mélancolie. This was based on music from Alamire’s songbook written for Margaret of Austria (Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands), currently preserved in Royal Library in Brussels. Married off at the age of 2 to the French dauphin, Margaret spent her early childhood at the French Court, but was sent back to the Netherlands aged 11. She married the heir to the Spanish throne aged 17, but he died within a year, She then married the Duke of Savoy, but he also died, as did her own brother. Despite such a miserable start to life, she established a spectacular court at Mechelen,south of Antwerp, seeking solace in music and art. Not surprisingly, she was drawn to melancholic chansons, notably those by her favourite composer, Pierre de la Rue. Soprano Barbara Zanichelli was the singer, her rather quiet, but slightly edgy voice, a tendency to swoop up to notes and to fade in and out of notes, combined with a fast, but slight, vibrato made her intonation sound rather more of a problem than it should. The rather incongruous appearance of a bog-standard box organ amongst the organetto, clavisimbalum, harp and fiddle also rather reduced the authenticity stakes.
The late night concert (26 August) was given by the French ensemble Diabolus in Musica with their Homage to Johannes Ockeghem. Built around the different sections of the Missa sicut spina rosam by Jacob Obrecht, much influence by Ockeghem, they also included Pierre de la Rue’s Plorer, gemir, crier / Requiem, written in memory of Ockeghem. With their gentle, unforced voices, pure tone and perfect intonation, the eight singers made a very impressive sound. I was also impressed by the subtle direction of Antoine Guerber, doing only what was necessary to keep things together.
A lunchtime concert (on 27 August) raised as many questions about present-day cultural difference as it did about Renaissance music. The four male singers of New York Polyphony presented a Mass sequence for Easter Day, based on Pierre de la Rue’s Missa Pourquoy non (also known as the Missa Sine nomine, Almana and Sexti ut fa), a work that appears in no fewer than five of Alamire’s manuscripts. They include one of the oldest Alamire manuscripts, suggesting that the Missa is one of de la Rue’s earliest such works. They interspersed this with plainchant and three motets unrelated to the Mass. The connection with de la Rue’s motet Pourquoy non, is rather obscure, although the Missa is in the same mode and opening with the same interval of a fourth (hence the Sexti ut fa title). Curiously, given the setting for the Mass, they opened with Absalon fili mi by either Josquin des Prez of Pierre de la Rue. I couldn’t quite see the link between this grief-ridden motet and an Easter Day mass, but might have missed something. They followed this by the first of their jovial spoken interventions, gleefully announcing (presumably for the benefit of those in the audience that had no idea they were) that “We are New York Polyphony” and inviting us not to applaud during the Mass. Perhaps applauded after each section of the Mass is usual in New York, but I am not aware of it being a European habit.
Despite a couple of shaky starts, their singing was generally reasonable, although it was top and bottom heavy, the two middle voices being dominated throughout. Each singer tended to emphasise their own entry, something not really in keeping with the concept of polyphony. I also found their continual swaying movements (whether singing or not) distracting, as was their unsettling habit of glancing back and forth between their scores, each other and the audience. They seemed very eager to please, something made obvious at the end when they announced that they would “Love to stay in touch with us all”, an invitation to buy their CDs (which, of course, they would insist on signing for us), and to join them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and their website. After the completely inappropriate encore of a schmaltzy slithery-harmonic close-harmony barber-shop “Sleep now, winter is over” (just what we needed during an August lunchtime) they left the stage with a cheery wave to their new best-friends.
The appropriately named English group Ensemble Alamire were very obviously going to be on the invitation list for the festival, with a concert (27 August, St-Carolus Borromeuskerk) with The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, based on their recently released CD of The Spy’s Choirbook. This is one of Petrus Alamire’s most interesting manuscripts. It was presented to Henry VIII, and his wife Catherine of Aragon and is now in the British Library (as MS Royal 8 Gvii). It has 28 motets and 6 secular works, generally focussed on the theme of mourning and birth – something of an issue for Henry at the time. Alamire’s director, David Skinner, can be forgiven for starting the concert by gleefully announcing that they had just heard that the Spy’s Choirbook CD had won the Gramophone Early Music Award. The manuscript has a curious back-story. It was originally intended, and written, for the French Louis XII and his wife Anne of Brittany, but was reworked for Henry and Catherine while Alamire was working as a spy for Henry. Although all the works are anonymous in the book, concordances with other sources have revealed the names of many of the composers, including de la Rue, Mouton, Strus, Agricola and Fayrfax. Some seem intended for instruments alone (here played from a gallery), and several were performed with cornets and sackbuts, sometime as a complete consort, or as a single instrument taking one of the polyphonic lines. The ten singers produced a superbly coordinated and cohesive sound, with a perfect balance between the voice parts and the instruments. One staging oddity was that spotlights were focussed principally on two blonde sopranos to the left of the line-up – I hope none of the others felt left out, and that the blondes could read their scores easily despite the glare from the lights.
The late-night concert came from La Capilla and a performance of Jheronimus Vinders’ Missa per Alamÿr. The mass movements were interspersed with chant and motets. The Missa per Alamÿr is found in a notebook in Vienna (VienNB 11883), with Alamire as one of the copyists. The Mass is noted as being by Hieronymus Winters, taken by the researchers to be the same person as Jheronimus Vinders, known to have been briefly a singing master in Ghent. The four male singers were joined by a lute making what, for me, seemed a rather curious combination. For example, is there any evidence that a lute would have provided an interlude between a Kyrie and a Gloria? Or that a lute would have played along with the singers during the Christe? That aside, the singers sang well together, helped by an excellent countertenor.
The Huelgas Ensemble are regulars at Laus Polyphoniae, and returned this year with several concerts, including one (28 August, St-Pauluskerk) made up of works by Anonymous composers. They were joined by 12 girls from the Parisian children’s choir Aposiopée for the 8-part Missa miserere mihi domine, the girls singing the top three lines of polyphony. The justification for this comes from the source, the Alamire manuscript in Munich (MunBS.6), probably compiled for William IV, Duke of Bavaria. There is a note in red – ‘pueri’, suggesting that children were involved in the performance. This worked amazingly well, the girls’ voices blending superbly with the 11-strong professional adult choir. The Mass itself was fascinating. It includes several homophonic and unison passages as well as quasi-intonations on a single chord and many repetitive imitative passages that rocked too-and-fro. A central cantus line was occasionally obvious within the texture. The Credo included several moments that appeared almost timeless, not least the low-set Crucifixus. There were some wonderfully scrunchy cadences, include a particularly anarchic one at the end of the first Agnus Dei. The Mass was interspersed by other anonymous sacred motets from Alamire manuscripts in Brussels, the Vatican, Munich, London and s-Hertogenbosch. The most impressive was a Salve regina, with a prominent role for the sopranos, firstly in the intonation, and then in the final line O Clemens, o dulcis virgo Maria, with their repeated ‘O’s. Paul van Nevel conducted (reversed tuning fork in hand) in his characteristic style, his rhetorical approach to pulse working well on this occasion, although some of the rallentandos were rather extended. They performed from the middle of the nave of the enormous St-Pauluskerk, with the audience on all four sides. As usual in this venue, van Nevel moved his conducting position, and the choir, through the four cardinal points.
The late evening concert was also in St-Pauluskerk (28 August), with another favourite of Laus Polyphoniae, the British vocal consort Stile Antico and their programme of five versions of the Salve Regina. The Salve Regina was sung at the end of compline between Trinity Sunday and the feast of Christ the King, and during the daily Lady Mass. The service was very popular in the late Middle Ages in the fraternities of Our Lady in s-Hertogenbosch and Antwerp, attracting compositions by the likes of Jacob Obrecht, whose impressive 6-part alternatim setting of the Salve concluded the evening. As well as Obrecht, we also heard versions by Jean Richafort, Josquin des Prez, Matthaeus Pipelare and the anonymous Salve Myn hert altyt heeft verlangen (my heart is always pining) that opened the concert – again, an alternatim version. Richafort’s Salve was set at a low pitch (and was sung without the sopranos), and contrasted (relatively) high and low groups of singers. A rising motif dominated the work, as it did in the following powerful Salve by Josquin, a work that also featured several homophonic sections. Pipelare’s Salve was sung with the alternatim chant sections being sung by the three sopranos from the distance altar – and nice bit of spatial separation, but perhaps not altogether authentic.
The two evening concerts on Saturday 29 August started with pioneering British vocal consort, The Clerks, directed by Edward Wickham. Their programme concentrated on the earliest composers found in the Alamire manuscripts, Jacobus Barbireau, Johannes Regis and Johannes Ockeghem, with a focus on Barbireau, a former choir director at Antwerp Cathedral. His Missa virgo parens Christi and the motet Oscoletur me. As in many other works that we had heard during the festival, the Missa virgo parens Christi featured several passages built on a motif of rising notes, and contrasted homophonic with polyphonic sections (often in duo form), with several sections where voices move in parallel. It is an impressive work, with a jubilant feel. The concluding O admirabile commercium by Johannes Regis was another impressive piece, with its complex syncopated rhythms and elaborate upper parts. The 8 singers of the Clerks were in pairs, all blending well except the two tenors who had very different vocal styles, one more suitable for consort singing, the other for the intonations. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the way they were used. That aside, this was an excellent performance of works from the earliest part of the period. I liked Edward Wickham’s subtle direction from within the choir, his minimal leads being all that was necessary – a refreshing alternative to the distraction of a central placed conductor.
The Huelgas Ensemble returned for their third concert of the festival with a late-night concert called Alamire’s kaleidoscope, a varied collection of motets and chansons by ten of the composers featured in Alamire’s books. Compositions ranged from 3 to 5 parts and came from Alamire collections in Munich, Florence, Vienna, Jena, London and Brussels). Composers included Lebrun, Compère, de Orto, Barbireau, Josquin, Agricola and Molinet. The vocal forces ranging from all 12 singers to just three including, on a couple of occasions, singing from high up in the pulpit. The liturgical pieces included the Agnus Dei from Barbireau’s Faulx perversa Mass (with its very low start, before higher voices were added) and a Magnificat septimi toni by Piere de la Rue. The later rather suffered from chant sections sung by a tenor with a very strained and unsteady voice. But this was the only vocal glitch in an otherwise perfect example of consort singing. Although all other voices were well-coordinated and balanced, there were particularly good contributions from the soprano and bass singers.
Seeing so many different performances of similar repertoire by so many different performers obviously leads to comparisons in performing and directing styles. Paul Van Nevel vigorously conducts every beat, rather than adopting the tactus, or half tactus, pulse that the music is usually underlain by. However the singers avoiding articulating to that fast beat, which could have been a temptation, given the conducting style. Van Nevel also introduces changes of tempo and dramatic cadential rallentandos, something arguably a feature of a much later musical style. The different ways that pitch is indicated is also interesting. Some directors/choirs manage to do it without any obvious assistance, Van Nevel bangs his tuning fork on his hand and then holds it to his music stand so that it can sound out to all – he then reverses the tuning fork to conduct with. Other directors/singers bang their tuning fork on their heads, which is not always the most attractive way of doing it.
The final day of the festival (Sunday 30 August) coincided with the annual Cultuurmarkt Vlaanderen an enterprising celebration of the forthcoming season’s arts events in Antwerp and Flanders. The photo shows an enterprising introduction to the workings of a pipe organ, presented by Het Orgel. The contribution at AMUZ was Alamire Fringe, a series of seven short concerts (on the hour) by semi-professional and amateur vocal groups who have been working to promote the polyphonic music from Alamire’s time as part of a research project funded by the Flemish government. The groups were coached by professional singers in how to perform music from old source documents. It was interesting that it was only at one of these short events that I saw singers standing round a central large manuscript book, as would almost certainly have been the custom at the time. It was a shame that none of the professional groups (of the ones that I saw) attempted this.
For me, the festival finished (on 31 August, in the St-Pauluskerk) as it had begun with the sound of saxophones. Saxophonist Eric Sleichim (who had performed with the Cathedral organ on my first evening), returned with his saxophone quartet BL!NDMAN, together with the 12 singers of Collegium Vocale Gent, directed by James Wood. The programme was called Morgen! the title of one of the two pieces that had been specially commissioned by Laus Polyphoniae – from Eric Sleichim and Salvatore Sciarrino. The opening chant of Intemerata Dei mater was first intoned on a solo saxophone before the choir sang Ockeghem’s motet accompanied by with four saxophones – a fascinating sound combination that worked surprisingly well. The choir alone sang Pierre de la Rue’s Il viendra le jour desire before the first of the commissioned works, Salvatore Sciarrino’s Diverbio tra motte for twelve voices and saxophone quartet. Based on compositions in the various Alamire manuscripts, the five movements started with an explosive blast from a saxophone. The often rapid text from the singers were interrupted by interjections from the four saxophones, the former’s techniques including swooping soprano lines, the latter’s, flutter-tonguing. The 20 minute long work was an impression combination of the two extremes of musical history. Three contrasted versions of Agricola’s De tour bien playne followed by Eric Sleichim’s commissioned piece, Morgen!. Lasting about 10 minutes, this combined a solo saxophone with two countertenor voices, fed through electronics and six speakers spaced around the church. This was a most evocative piece.
And so finished the Laus Polyphoniae 2015. The detailed programme book (which includes a sampler CD of several of the pieces to be heard during the festival) has translations of the concert descriptions in English, but the texts are only translated into Flemish. The scholarly articles are also only in Flemish, as are the pre-concert talks. Next year’s festival runs from 19-28 August, under the ominous title of Mors – De eeuw van de zwarte.