Regensburg: Tage Alter Musik
13-16 May 2016
If sixteen concerts of early music in just four days sound like your sort of thing, Regensburg is the place to be over the Pentecost/Whitsun weekend every year. Their Tage Alter Musik festival is not for the faint hearted, but the musical rewards are enormous, as are the architectural and historic delights of this beautiful Bavarian city on the Danube – the entire city centre is a World Heritage site. Venues for the concerts include extreme Baroque/Rococo, austere Gothic and the historic Reichssaal. This year was the 32nd such festival. One of the attractions of Tage Alter Musik for a reviewer from the UK is that most of the performers that they engage do not visit the UK, so it is an excellent chance to hear what our continental neighbours are up to.
Friday 13 May
The weekend traditionally opens on Friday evening with the famous Regensburg cathedral boys’ choir, the Regensburger Domspatzen, as with last year, paired with L’Orfeo Baroque Orchestra from Austria. Their concert in the Dreieinigkeitskirche (Trinity Church) was of Hadyn, with Symphony 30 followed by the Salve Regina in g and the Missa in tempore belli, the so-called Paukenmesse. The Salve Regina has a distictive organ part, here played by Reinhard Führer. The four soloists were Yeree Suh, Ulrike Mayer, Uwe Gottswinter and Christof Hartkopf, the latter two both ex member of the Domspatzen. As with last year, I found Yeree Suh’s voice too operatic for this music, with her prominent vibrato and frequent portamento. I was impressed with the mezzo Ulrike Mayer, standing in for a disposed singer. She had an impressive range, reaching some particularly low notes in the Salve. The 81 boys and young men of the Domspatzen arrived for the Paukenmesse, producing an impressive and unforced sound, singing with a well rounded tone. Conductor Roland Büchner kept careful control of the varying moods of Hadyn’s music, allowing space and time where appropriate, for example, in the concluding moments of the Credo. The well-known moment comes in the Agnus Dei when the timpani that give the Mass it’s nickname make their appearance, although I wasn’t convinced that the timpani sound was one that Haydn would have been familiar with.
The first of the late night concerts (which start at 10.45 and often run into the following day) featured the Tiburtina Ensemble from Prague (in the Schottenkirche, with its extraordinary medieval portal), with music from the time of of the Bohemian King Wenceslaus II around 1300. A rather turbulant time by all accounts, at a time when Bohemia controlled much of central Europe. The music opened with a lament on the death of his father, Otakar II, at the battle of Marchfeld (1278, when Wenceslaus was just 7), his wedding to Judith con Hapsburg (1285), their coronation (1297) and their death shortly afterwards. The eight members of the group were joined by guest Thomas Wimmer, playing a sizeable medieval fiddle. Two of the singers also played harp. They made an attractive sound, although there were elements of their performance that distracted from the music, not least the extraordinary amount of time taken by the two harpists to tune up, very often without actually playing their instruments immediately afterwards. Another distraction was the conducting of their leader, whose extravagant hand wafting seemed totally unnecesary with such small forces, as well as drawing undue attention to herself. There were some fine spoken declamations from Daniela Čermáková. This was a fascinating musical and historical insight into an interesting period in Bohemian history. Incidentally, the historic links between Regsensburg and Bohemia are strong, the Christianisation of the Czech lands stemming from a ninth century visit by Bohemian princes.
Saturday 14 May
Regensburg’s Reichssaal, part of the Altes Rathaus, was for several centuries the permanent seat of the Parliament of the Holy Roman Empire. It was the venue for the Saturday morning concert, given by the Spanish group La Ritirata with their programme “Il spiritillo brando: dances from the court of the Spanish Viceroys in Naples“. A fascinaring mixture of Italian and Spanish influences, the dances of composers such as Andrea Falconieri (lutenist and later conductor of the court orchestra) offered an enticing glimpse into the courtly life in the early 17th century. With artound 25 pieces in an 80 minute concert, linking pieces together was inevitable, and this was well handled by the group with improvised links between several of the pieces. I particularly liked the recorder playing of Tamar Lalo and also appreciated that the percussion of David Mayoral was reasonably subtle.
The early afternoon music-theatre concert, The Tempest was billed as for “all ages from 10 up“. It was given by the Ensemble Sinn & Tonn from Berlin and was based on Shakespeare. Led by violinist Rahel Mai (also playing Ariel) with Christine Marx as Miranda, narrator and director, this was probably more suitable for the younger end of the target audience. There was more narration than acting, or indeed music, the 24 tiny musical examples often just filling in between bouts of narration. Unfortunately there was no singing, even of the songs that Shakespear includes in his version of The Tempest, and some dance might also have been a good addition. It certainly wasn’t Shakespeare as we usual experience him. The low stage and level seating meant that it was very difficult for anybody to see what was going on, least of all the younger members of the audience. But at least they stayed quiet for the duration, even if they were not exactly whooping with excitement.
Later on Saturday afternoon, in St Oswald’s church, we heard the Norwegian group Barokkanerne with mezzo Marianne Beate Kielland and director and oboist, Alfredo Bernardini, and their programme of Bach cantatas and Telemann overtures. The sheer inventiveness and imagination of Telemann’s music was apparent in the opening Overture (TWV 55:B10) for three oboes, fagott, string and continuo, the players of Barokkanerne relishing the different moods of the different movements, including the vigerous Hornepipe, the graceful Menuet, the beautful Plainte, and the rapid-fire Combattants. The second half opened with the striking opening chord of Telemann’s Oboe Concert (TWV 51:c1). The more traditionally formated piece was played with ineveitable panache by Alfredo Bernardini.
The two Bach cantatas were Vergnügte Ruh and Geist und Seele wird verwirret, both dating from 1726 and both featuring prominent organ parts. Vergnügte Ruh opens with one of Bach’s magically heart-melting harmonic and melodic moments, in this case for the oboe d’amore. As with so many of his cantata arias, it is the instrumental, rather than the vocal line, then tends to attract most attention. The second aria focusses on the sound of an obligato organ, its two intertwining voices pushing the boundaries of Bach’s supposed tuning to the limits. Written in the key of F# minor, the opening bar has the notes E#, B#, D# and A#, later joined by an Fx. On this occasion the organ was tuned to a temperament that accented, rather than reduced, the intensity of these notes, and it seems that the other instrumentalists could have done with a bit more rehearsal at matching that intonation. Geist und Seele wird verwirret is in a rather more friendly key, so intonation was much better.
Marianne Beate Kielland excelled in her solo alto role. The organist, Christian Kjos, also did well in his tricky solo role in both cantatas, particularly as Bach intended a two manual church organ to be used, rather than the little one manual continuo organ that he had to cope with. Incidentally, St Oswald’s has the only historic organ in Regensburg in its west gallery, but I have never heard it used for the Tage Alter Musik festival.
The main Saturday evening concert (in the Dreieinigkeitskirche) was given by the Dresden Chamber Choir & Dresdner Barockorchester, and focussed on the Psalms of David by Heinrich Schütz. Published in Dresden in 1619, the 26 sacred concerto on the Psalms are Schütz’s attempt to bring the Venietian polychoral tradition of his teacher Giovanni Gabrieli into the world of the German Protestant church. The Trinity Church was an appropriate venue, built just a few years later as a Protestant preaching church, and the burial place of many later Protestant visitors. Under the direction of Hans-Christoph Rademann, the nine soloists were supported by a choir of 18 and 22 instrumentalists, including 6 trombones, three cornetts, and two trumpets, 2 violins, 3 violas da gamba, and a continuo group of 2 theorbos, dulzian, violone and organ. The selection of 14 out of the 26 concertos was well chosen and well balanced, with contrasts in texture and colour. Although the opening piece was a little uncoordinated, things settled down after that, with some fine singing from soloists and choir. I particularly liked Gerlinde Sämann, David Erler, Charles Daniels, and Lisandro Abadie.
I confess that I confused the Minorites with the Dominicans and therefore turned up just in time for the Saturday 10.45pm concert, but at the wrong church. The correct one was on the opposite side of town so, with a developing cold, I took the chance to go to bed. So I missed La Compagnia del Madrigale from Italy and their programme of madrigals by Gesualdo. But I am sure it was great,
Sunday 15 May
Sunday morning started in the Reichssaal with the viol consort L’Achéron from Luxembourg and their programme The Fruit of Love: English dance music by Anthony Holborne. They divided the pieces into four groups of five or six, applying contrast within, rather than between, the groups. Despite the temptations of the titles of the pieces, there didn’t seem to be any narritive to the groupings. As well as the five violas da gamba, there was a continuo group of lute and cittern, a crinkly-sided pandora and a harpsichord. Although most of these worked well with the viols, I would have prefered the sound of a small organ, the more usual accompaniment to a viol consort in England at the time, rather than the percussive sound of the harpsichord. I was glad that the two upper viols managed to keep their volume in check, something of an issue with some viol consorts.
The first of the weekend’s concerts in the ancient (but heavily Baroquised) Basilika St. Emmeram was given by the European Union Baroque Orchestra (EUBO). They were formed in 1985 as a training orchestra for young musicians in that tricky gap between completing their studies and starting their professional careers. Since then they have carved out an enormous (and award winning) reputation as one of the finest period instrument orchestras around, despite the fact that they reform each year with a completely new set of young players. One of their very first concerts was given in Regensburg in 1985, under the direction of Roger Norrington. The current Tage Alter Musik programme book included photographs and a poster from that 1985 concert. One of the 1985 EUBO players was oboist Alfredo Bernardini, now a regular performer in Regsensburg (and around the world) and the leader of two of this weekend’s orchestra.
This EUBO programme (one of several they have toured with in the past months) was entitled Creative Europe in the 18th century and was based around the explosion in music publishing and new printing methods in the early years of the 18th century, notably from Roger in Amsterdam and Walsh in London, both of whom have anniversaries in 2016. These publications increased the accessibility of music through new technologies and enterprises, thereby creating new audiences. The EUBO concert included five concertos and an extended overture, exploring music from around Europe by Lully, Vivaldi, Handel, and Albinoni. In music like this, there is an almost continual interplay between different groups of instruments and players, and the training that each intake of EUBO players receives (which includes experience of playing in smaller consort groups) was very evident. The sense of playing together was excellent, as was their sheer enjoyment of the music. EUBO has a tradition of using rather extrovert and flamboyant directors to head up the various annual tours, and the choice of Rachel Podger for this short tour was one such example. Her engaging approach to music making rubbed off on the players as well as the audience. Their performance was sensitive, revealing, imaginative and communicative. Several players were given the chance to shine but, as is the case in so much of this repertoire, it was the continuo cellist that has much of the work – in this case, a very impressive Candela Gómez Bonet, one of no fewer than six Spanish players in the 18 strong orchestra, making up the enitre lower strings. And I am sure that, if any of the young players end up directing ensembles themselves (as I am sure several of them will), they will remember this concert for teaching them one very important lesson– to make sure that all the required players are actually on stage before starting a piece. On this occasion, the encore nearly started without a key soloist – the impressive Italian recorder and bassoon player Alessandro Nasello. The situation saved by an alert viola player – they do have their uses!
The later afternoon concert was in the Alten Kapelle, its glitteringly Rococco decorations belying an ancient foundation. The group was Les Basses Réunies from France, making their German debut. Their programme was pieces and extracts by Bach and Vivaldi, nearly all in arrangements that focussed on the string bass instruments, to suit their cellist leader. As such, they gave a rather distorted impression of the music, not helped by several moments of poor intonation from the various bass instruments, and excessive vibrato, particular at what should be restful cadence points. Violinist Ryo Terakado was very impressive, notably in Bach’s Sonata in c (1047) for violin and harpsichord, although this combination would have sounded very much better in a chamber, rather than a large church acoustic. Organist Maude Gratton also impressed with some very complex finger work in an arrangement of Vivaldi’s Concerto in d (541)
The main Sunday evening concert was back in the Trinity church, with the French Pulcinella Orchestra and a very welcome concert of music by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, an often overlooked member of that extraordinary family. Led by cellist Ophélie Gaillard, it was perhaps inevitable that the programme would open and close with cello concertos (Wq 170/172). In typical CPE Bach style, the expansive opening cello melody of the A minor concerto was in sharp contrast to the busy orchestral introduction. The opening movement ended with a large-scale cadenza that seemed to momentarily wander off into a concerto from a completely different era. The concluding A major Concerto included some florid cello figuration in the opening Allegro, tempered by a yearning cello melody in the central Largo. Despite her leadership position, Ophélie Gaillard never allowed her cello to dominate the proceedings – an admirable, but not often heard, practice. The Symphony 5 in B minor was another example of CPE Bach’s extravagent compositional style, with rapid changes of mood and texture. The second half opened with his Sanguineus & Melancholicus, with violinists Thibault Noally and David Chivers representing the battle between the temperaments.
Sunday’s late night concert was in the vast Gothic Dominikanerkirche and was given by the American choir Cut Circle, conducted by Jesse Rodin and making their German debut. They titled their programme My Fair Lady, in a less-than-subtle reference to Marian pieces by Josquin, Desprez, Busnoys and Ockeghem and the concluding Missa Ecce ancilla Domini / Beata es Maria by Dufay. They sang the Dufay Mass from an enormous enlargement of the modern score, presumably aiming to recreate an image of monks gathered around a singing desk but, in practice, looking rather Heath Robinson with its white sheet covering, lots of little lights clipped to the top and with the singers facing sideways on to the audience. It also reinforced my query as to why a conductor was necessary for music like this, with just 8 singers. Very few of the singers in the Mass could have seen his beat, which was down around waist level. The blend between the singers was generally good, although there a steady, albeit slight, vibrato from one of the sopranos which gave an edginess to the voice and prevented cadences from resolving smoothly. The difference in timbre when the other soprano sang was noticeable. There were also occasions when the fifth in a final cadence was over-emphasized.
Monday 15 May
The threat of rain meant that the Monday morning concert was moved from it’s planned outdoor performance in the courtyard of the Thon Dittmer Palace to St Oswald Kirche. It saw the return of the ever-popular Alfredo Bernardini, directing his own windband Zefiro in their programme Harmoniemusik & Türkenmode, with some of the pieces for windband inspired by Turkish music from around 1800 by such composers as JM and FJ Haydn, mozart, Rossini, G and G Donizetti, Witt, Beethoven and Mendelssohn. This is an extraordinary repertoire, with some remarkable sounds, not least from the contrabassoon and cimbasso bass instruments played by Riccardo Armari and Maurizio Barigione. The whole thing was presented in a lively and good-humoured manner, fullly engaging the audience. After sitting though ten concerts in 2 days, this was an ideal morning pick-me-up.
The early afternoon concert was given in the Minoritenkirche by ClubMediéval from Belgium with their programme of ballatas and madrigals by Paolo da Firenze (1355-1436), Amor, tu solo’l sai. The four singers were supported by harp, dulcimer, fiddle and organetto. Most of the music was from manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. As well as the ballatas and madrigals, it also included his only surviving sacred compositions Benedicamus and Gaudeamus. This is fascinating music, on the cusp between the late Gothic and the Renaissance periods, with complex rhythms and interweaving vocal lines. The instruments were used creatively, and it was particularly good to hear the gentle and musical fluid lines from Guillermo Pérez’s organetto.
The penultimate concert of the long weekend was given in the Neuhaussaal by Euskal Barrokensemble from Spain with their programme of Andalusian folk songs and dances of the Baroque period, El Amor Brujo 1715. The title and basis of the concert was a bit misleading, as much of the music was by, or arranged by, Manuel de Falla in the early 20th century for his one-act ballet El Amor Brujo (Love Spell). This explained the occasional snatches of well-known Spanish pieces that had crept into the music charts in the past decades. But also included were pieces from the likes of Sanz, Matteis, and Kapsberger in this arrangement of de Falla’s ballet using period instruments and music. Singer Rocío Márquez seemed to be emoting as much as actually singing, setting up an exotic background for the Flemenco-style, finger-clicking, cloak-whirling and toe-tapping dancing of Maria Moreno. A fascinating concert, although perhaps more remeniscant of recent dusky evenings in Seville than the early 18th century.
The Tage Alter Musik weekend finished with one of the undoubted highlights, the concert given in the Trinty Church by the eight singers of Solomon’s Knot from the UK with the Swiss period instrument orchestra Les Passions de l’Ame. They gave a rare performance of A Lyric Ode on the Fairies, Aerial Beings and Witches of Shakespeare, by Thomas Linley (the Younger), dating from 1776. The son of a well-known musical father, Linley was a child prodigy who gave his first public concert aged 7. Three years later he was on the stage of Covent Garden, singing and playing the violin in the role of Puck. After a meeting in Italy 1770 when both were 14, he and Mozart became firm friends. The first performance of his Shakespeare Ode in 1776 was greeted as ”an extraordinary effort of genius in so young a man”. Two years later he was dead, drowned in a boating accident, aged just 22.
His Shakespeare Ode is an extraordinary work, albeit composed to one of the silliest librettos around. Combining elements of the music of Handel, Boyce (Lindley’s teacher), JC Bach, Gluck and other continental composers, he generates a lively invocation of the weirder element of Shakespeare’s characterisations. There is a prominent role for solo oboe (here played by Shai Kribus) and for two sopranos (Zoë Brookshaw and Clare Lloyd Griffiths as Fancy and the Spirit of Avon) and two bass singers (Jonathan Sells, director of Solomon’s Knot, and Alex Ashworth) as the Fearful Observers in the gruesome opening of the second part. As is usual with Solomon’s Knot they all sang from memory, increasing the communication with the audience, who clearly loved the whole thing, rewarding them with the only standing ovation of the whole weekend. On this occasion, the excellent Les Passions de l’Ame was led by Julia Schröder, rather then their usual director, violinist Meret Lüthi. With its delightful arias and rousing choruses it made a fitting end to the Tage Alter Musik festival, sending us home with a warm feeling inside.
And so ended one of the most intense musical festivals around. Some of the concerts were broadcast live on Bavarian TV or radio (BR Klassik), and several will be broadcast at some future date (schedule pictured). Alongside the concerts was large showcase for musical instrument makers and music publishers, housed in the enormous Saltzstadel by Regensburg’s famous Danube bridge. The programme has detailed programme notes for all the concerts, only in German, and there are also some pre-concert talks. My only quibble is that in many of the venues makes that it is impossible to see the performers properly. Although the musicians sometimes had low stages, that usually only lifted them up to around the head height of the front row audience. Most of the church pews are on raised platforms, meaning that those sitting in additional chairs at floor level are completely blocked from view. The only real solution is much higher staging for the performers.