Regensburg: Tage Alter Musik
2-5 June 2017
With 16 concert in four days, held over the Pentecost/Whitsun weekend, the annual Regensburg Tage Alter Musik festival is quite a challenge for a reviewer, but a sumptuous feast for those who manage to attend all the concerts, most of which are sold out. The entire centre of the historic Danube city of Regensburg has been declared a World Heritage site, and all the venues for the festival are in important historic buildings. These range from extreme Baroque and Rococo to austere Gothic churches, and the historic Reichssaal, part of the Altes Rathaus, and for centuries the permanent seat of the Parliament of the Holy Roman Empire. This was the 33rd festival and featured groups from 12 countries, and musicians from a great many more. The Tage Alter Musik website can be see here, with links through to detailed programmes and group websites.
Friday 2 June
The festival traditionally opens with the Regensburger Domspatzen, the famous boys choir of the cathedral, directed by Roland Büchner accompanied, as last year, by L’Orfeo Barockorchester from Austria in the Dreieinigkeitskirche (Trinity Church). The programme was three works by Haydn, opening with his early Symphony in C (Hob. I:38, c1768), its festive opening leading to a jovial second theme. The lilting pastoral Andante molto later gave the work its nickname of the ‘Echo’. The final two movements are in rather different style than the first two, and feature virtuoso roles for the two oboists, here very well-played by Carin van Heerden and Anabel Röser. This was followed by a slightly later work, the Salve Regina in E (Hob. XXIII b:1, 1771) with soprano Hannah Morrison as an impressive soloist with her clear and well-focussed voice. The pianissimo ending was particularly effective. The final piece was the earliest of the programme, the 1766 Missa Cellensis in honorem Beatissimae Virginis Mariae – the so-called St. Cecilia Mass. Hannah Morrison was joined by three other vocal soloists, the tenor Michael Mogl being the most impressive. The ‘soft centre’ of the piece, the et incarnatus est section of the Credo was particularly effective, with its orchestral murmurs accompanying the tenor. The boys choir were on fine form, their distinctive tone being particularly good in the louder choruses.
The late night (10.45pm) concert in the Schottenkirche St. Jakob (with its extraordinary sculptures) was given the young British a capella vocal group The Gesualdo Six, directed by Owain Park, making their German debut with their programme Journey through the Music of the English Masters. With composers ranging from Dunstable to Tomkins they explored some of the finest music ever produced from the British Isles in a well-balanced and varied programme. They were particularly good at the distinctively English false relations heard in Taverner’s Quemadmodum and Loquebantur from Tallis, the master of such scrunchy harmonic twists and turns. His cadence on Alleluia must be amongst the most beautiful in the history of music, almost equalled by the final cadence of his Suscipe quaeso Domine. These pieces were contrasted by the relative simplicity of Sheppard’s Libera nos II and White’s Christe, qui lux es et dies. The emotional intensity and changes in volume in, for example, Byrd’s Vigilate, were well handled, sounding completely natural to the music. The two countertenors, Guy James and Alex Chance were very impressive. The audience response was particularly enthusiastic, and rightly so.
Saturday 3 June
The Beethoven Project is a duo of violin and piano from the USA. Their 11am concert in the Neuhaussaal of the Theater am Bismarckplatz was of Beethoven’s three Opus 30 Sonatas for piano and violin, the order of the two instruments being very obvious from the texture of the music. Only in the final movement of the 2nd Sonata does the violin really get a chance to take control. Playing a fortepiano based on a 1772 Anton Walter original, Ian Watson demonstrated a good sense of the ebb and flow of the music. Notwithstanding the difficulties of playing (and listening) in an oppressively hot, humid and unventilated hall, I was less impressed with the violin playing, not least the frequent use of portamento slithers towards, but not quite precisely on, the intended note, and a finger vibrato that also affected intonation.
The early afternoon concert took place in the basement of the interestingly named Leerer Beutel (Empty Bag), an enormous grain warehouse now used as an art gallery and restaurant. The ten-strong Ensemble Les haulz et les bas, based in Germany, played a programme with the enigmatic title of ars supernova – Medieval Jazz – eine Erfahrung von Zeitlosigkeit… (… an experience of timelessness …). Featuring an enormous array of instruments, ancient and modern, and a range of musical styles to match, this was the sort of concert that really should have been one of the late night ones, rather than early afternoon. Whether playing together or in separate groups, the medieval schalmei, pommer, gaita, slide trumpet, and posaune blended surprisingly well with the array of jazz saxophones, double bass and guitar. Apart from some numbers written by members of the group, the music was certainly Medieval (with the rather odd exception of Purcell’s If music be the food of love), even if the interpretations were not always of that period, but were in the delightfully relaxed, late-night, improvisatory and slightly ramshackle mood of a jazz club.
The late afternoon concert was given in the galleried St Oswald church by the Canadian group, Ensemble Masques under the title of Erbarme dich: Cantatas and Instrumental music from 17th century Germany, with a focus on the theme of death and laments. This proved to be one of the highlights of the weekend, with some exquisite music sung and played with real emotional conviction. They opened with an example of the stylus phantasticus that was to dominate the period, with Biber’s Sonata III in d from the Fidicinium Sacro-profanum. The vocal pieces included Buxtehude’s moving elegy to his father, the Klaglied, JC Bach’s gorgeous Ach, dass ich Wassers genug hätte with it’s touching depiction of the rolling waves, and Schütz’s plaintive Erbarme dich mein. The accompaniments relished the rich string sonority of two violins, viola, two bass viols and violone, with organ. The vocal soloist was countertenor Damien Guillon, the clarity of his voice being a highlight. Of the instrumentalists, violinist Sophie Gent and gambist Mélisande Corriveau particularly impressed me. This concert was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 2 July, and can be accessed for a short period of time here.
The main evening concert was given by Scherzi Musicali from Belgium, with their programme La Maddalena (Mantua, 1617) & La Maddalena (Wien, 1663). The main piece was Antonio Bertali’s La Maddalena, written in Vienna in 1663. It was preceded by Mazzocchi’s 1638 Lagrime amare, beautifully sung by soprano Deborah Cachet, and another La Maddalena, a sacred drama put together in Mantua in 1617 by different composers, notably Monteverdi with his Prologo: Su le penne de’ vente, together with pieces by Guivizzani, Effrem, and Rossi. As well as Deborah Cachet, tenor Reinoud Van Mechelen and bass Sönke Tams Freier also impressed. The rich orchestrations included four violas da gambe and violone, two cornettos and trombone, violin, and a continuo group of lirone, two theorbos, archlute, organ and harpsichord. Key instrumentalists included Adrien Mabire, cornetto, and Liam Fennely and Lies Wyers, viola da gamba. The organ was a particularly effective one made by Walter Chinaglia, with an open 8′ stop and an attractively vocal tone. My review of the CD upon which this concert was based can be found here.
The Saturday late night concert was given by the Spanish group La Grande Chapelle in the Reichssaal. Their programme Música para el Rey Planeta, consisted of music by Juan Hidalgo (1614-1685), official chamber and theatre composer to Philip IV and Charles II. In a rich variety of musical styles, they demonstrated the breadth of music in the Spanish royal court of the period. The seemingly rhythmically anarchic Quedito, pasito was contrasted by simpler strophic songs with refrain. One of the most popular numbers, as judged by audience applause, was Luceros y flores where we heard the castanets for the first time. As was the case in some other venues, the hall was unbearably hot and humid with no ventilation either before or during the concert, despite many openable windows.
Sunday 4 June
The Sunday series of five concerts started in the enormous acoustic of the cavernous Minoritenkirche, with its adjoining abbey buildings, now the Regensburg historical museum, with the four members of Ensemble Labyrinthus from Russia, and their programme Carmina Helvetica: conductus and rondelli from the 12th to 14th century from Swiss monasteries and libraries. They contrasted the dance-like Rondelli, sung and danced in church to spiritual texts, with the multi-voice Conductus from the Notre-Dame tradition, found in Swiss Abbeys such as the Abbeys of Engelberg and St Gallen. The two sopranos, Witte-Maria Weber and Anastasia Bondareva had ideal voices for this early repertoire, their instrumental companions Alexander Gorbunov and Danil Ryabchikov accompanying on fidel and citole. Inserted between the medieval pieces were improvised Estampies. The musical styles were wide-ranging, from step-by-step melodies of limited range to more expansive lines with added ornaments. The whole programme was segued together.
The early afternoon concert was back into the heat of the Reichssaal, with the Austrian Schwanthaler Trompetenconsort with a powerfull line-up of eight trumpets, two chalumeaux, trombone, organ and timpani. Their programme, Musica Maestosa da Camera – Trummet ist ein herrlich Instrument, started with a procession from somewhere in the bowels of the Old Town Hall into the Reichssaal. Cleverly using the space, trumpeters were positioned around the hall, and up on the small rear gallery, for a wide range of courtly and more intimate chamber music. One unusual piece was the Presentation of a Musical Sea Battle by Ferdinand Donninger, here given with the spoken storyline. As well as many little-known composers, we also heard Mozart’s curious Divertimento in D (K. 188) for five clarino trumpets, two chalumeaux and timpani. As a bit of a palate-cleanser we also heard the Capricciose by Pasquina nicely played by Martina Schobesberger on the chamber organ.
The second (4pm) afternoon concert (in the gold-drizzled Baroque Alten Kapelle) was Weg zur Himmelsburg, a programme of early Bach cantatas given by the Ensemble Alia Mens from Lille, France. They started with the melancholy Sinfonia to Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (BWV 12), composed in 1714 leading to the slow tread of the descending bass line of the opening section. The first aria introduced the distinctive sound of the oboe of Laura Duthuillé and bassoon played by Inga Maria Klaucke, with later distinctive contributions on recorder from Inga and Julien Martin. All three cantatas had unusual structures, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen having four arias in a row with only one short recitative, Gleich wie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt with nearly all recitatives divided between tenor, bass, and choir, and the Actus tragicus: Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit with its distinctive pause on the words Herr Jesu, komm! at the end of the extended opening sequence. With the four soloists (Maïlys de Villoutreys, Pascal Bertin, Jeffrey Thompson, and Etienne Bazola) acting as the choir, the clarity of Bach’s intertwining lines were crystal clear, as was the solo singing.
The main Sunday evening concert was a return visit to Regensburg by the British group, Solomon’s Knot Baroque Collective and an outstanding performance of Handel’s Messiah in the 1747 Dublin version, as reconstructed by John Butt (Trinity Church). Their distinctive style of presentation was apparent from the start. There was no formal entry of the musicians: the orchestra were already on stage tuning up and the singers were sitting in the front row, informally dressed. There was no conductor, and the eight singers sang from memory throughout. Director Jonathan Sells was one of the singers, but you would be hard-pressed to realise that he was director, so subtle was his contribution. They have a very personal and emotionally strong take on the music, each singing directly to the audience, breaking through the theatrical fourth wall in a way that draws us into the unfolding story. Amongst the eight singers, standout performances came from sopranos Zoë Brookshaw and Laura Oldfield (the latter demonstrating excellent professionalism in managing to sing superbly despite suffering severe food poisoning), mezzo Kate Symonds-Joy, tenor Thomas Herford, and Jonathan Sells bass. I was far less convinced by the countertenor, whose overblown vibrato added an unpleasently nervous edge to his voice, and caused havoc with intonation. The audience reception was one of the most enthusiastic of the entire festival, and deservedly so.
The late night concert in the Schottenkirche was given by Cappella Mariana from Prague, under the title Praga Magna: Music in Prague during the reign of Emperor Rudolf II. In 1583, the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II (who appropriately, was crowned King of Germany, one of his many titles, in Regensburg) transferred his court to Prague from Vienna, and soon turned the city into one of the principal cultural centers of the late Renaissance and Mannerist periods, in the process perhaps neglecting his political responsibilities, leading to war with the Ottomans and, eventually, the disastrous Thirty Years War. They centred their programme on the eight-voice Missa: Confitebor tibi Domine by Philippe de Monte, Rudolph’s court conductor, alongside motets and instrumental music by Orologio (a processional Intrada), Lasso’s motet Confitebor tibi Domine, Zanchi (a Canzona), Luython (the organ Fuga Suavissima played by Catalina Vicens), a Rossi Sonata, and Regnart’s Litaniae Deiperae Mariae Virginis with its sensibly overlapping repetitive phrases and varied textures; all written for the court of Rudolf II. The eight singers, together with three trombones, two cornettos, theorbo, organ and occasional percussion, produced a very attractive consort sound, to the clear delight of another appreciative audience.
Monday 5 June
Monday morning started with the Spanish group La Galanía and soprano Raquel Andueza with their programme, Yo soy la locura (I am the madness, the only inspiration for pleasure and sweetness). With academic assistance from Dr Álvaro Torrente (who gave a pre-concert talk), they explored aspects of madness in Spanish dance and vocal music of the 17th century. The pieces included the only Spanish example of a recitativo lament, Hidalgo’s Crédito es de mi decoro, in which a man escapes an overly enthusiastic lover by becoming a bird, whereupon she dies and evaporates as a cloud to be closer to him. The Zarabanda del Catálogo was a reconstruction by Torrente of a dance that was apparently banned because of its particularly explicit text, although the ban rather misfired as, although the music has long since disappeared, the text survived. This was clearly a very well-rehearsed concert, with the result that practically all the pieces, including the ‘improvisations’, seemed over-prepared. Given the nature of the music, I would have hoped for rather more spontaneous improvisation.
The early afternoon concert (in St Oswald) was given by La Fonte Musica. It turned one of the most interesting of the weekend, not least because the involvement of a dancer. Under the title of Metamorfosi Trecento their programme explored the influence of Greek mythology in the music of Ars Nova period with composers such as Guillaume de Machaut, Philipp de Vitry, Jacopo da Bologna, Francesca Landini, and Paolo da Firenze. Rather than attempting to explain or describe the associated myths, well-known to educated people of the time, but not so much today, Nuria Sala Grau interpreted the myths in the form of exquisitely elegant South Indian inspired narrative dance, starting in South Indian dress, but later in white. The result was a delightful mixture of cultures, centuries and continents apart. Vocally, we heard the usual progression of the stories of Narcisso, Iguana, Fenice, Odysseus, Phyton, Callisto, Jupiter, Ariadne, Theseus, Roland, Daphne, Diana, Orpheus et al. Instrumental interludes were taken from the Faenza Codex, the distinctive cadential pattern being instantly recognisable. The soprano and tenor singers were accompanied by two fidels, flute, lute, and the metallic twang of a clavisimbalum.
The later afternoon concert was given in Basilica St. Emmeram by the Zürcher Barockorchester making their Regensburg debut. Their programme enclosed two Bach solo cantatas within instrumental pieces by Telemann and Heinichen. The Austrian soprano, Miriam Feuersinger (pictured) was outstanding in Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut and Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke, her rock-solid, vibrato-free, and pure-toned voice, with perfect intonation, being just the thing to project Bach’s musical lines and to blend with the instruments. Her grasp of period style and ornaments was exemplary. The Telemann Ouverture (TWV 55:a4) and Concerto (TWV 52:e3) demonstrated Telemann’s love of orchestral colour, and featured fine solo playing from Sibylle Kunz and Martina Joos, recorders, and Kerstin Kramp and Olga Marulanda, oboe. Violinist Renate Steinmann joined them in the Heinichen Concerto a 7. I was far less impressed with keyboard player Jermanine Sprosse, whose self-indulgent and continually interfering continuo realisations were a serious misjudgment. He frequently added countermelodies that interfered with the vocal line, and added huge harpsichord flourishes to the Telemann Concerto that seemed designed to draw attention to himself, rather than the designated soloists.
The final concert of the Regensburg Tage Alter Musik festival (in the Trinity Church) was a reconstruction of a Lutheran Mass as performed in 1617 (the 100th anniversary of the Reformation) at the Dresden court of Saxon Elector Johann Georg, with music by Heinrich Schütz and Michael Praetorius. The 10-strong choir La Capella Ducale and 24-strong orchestra Musica Fiata, both based in Germany, worked their way through a very complicated programme, with frequent changes of instrumentation and stage positioning involved up to five separate choirs of singers and instruments. After an opening organ Praeambulum by the Hamburg organist composer Scheidemann (intended for an enormous North German organ and sounding rather weedy on a curious looking chamber organ), the music alternated between Schütz and Praetorius. Although based on a Mass, this was not a conventional Mass setting, although the main components of the Mass were represented by different settings from the two composers, including the Kyrie and Gloria from Praetorius’s Missa gantz Teudsh, his version of the Lutheran Credo: Wir glauben all an einen Gott, and the Schütz Sanctus:Esaia, dem Propheten. The programme finished with Schütz’s Danket dem Herren with its distinctive repeated phrase of denn seine Güte währet ewiglich sung to a fanfare-like motif. All the pieces were segued together, and were often rather similar in style and texture, making for a rather unremitting programme without the non-musical elements of the original occasion. Voices did not always carry over the sumptuous array of instruments and, perhaps because of the staging complexities, there were several lapses in coordination, not helped by the impression that director Roland Wilson was conducting behind the beat on what he heard, rather than before the beat on what he wanted to hear.
And so ended the 33rd annual Regensburg Tage Alter Musik, a remarkable feast of music ranging from early Medieval to Beethoven. It featured around 24 hours of music, in 16 concerts spread over just four days, starting at 11 in the morning and continuing until after midnight. As well as the concerts, there was a major exhibition of musical instrument makers, CDs, and music scores in the historic Salzstadel overlooking Regensburg’s famous Danube bridge. One possible issue for visitors from outside Germany is that the comprehensive programme book is in German. Several of this year’s festival concerts were recorded for broadcast on BR Klassik during July and August, so should be available to listen to via the internet. An annual quibble is that in many venues it is almost impossible to see the performers, the low stages often only lifting them up to around the head height of the front row. Adding to this problem is the fact that many of the church pews are on raised platforms, meaning that those sitting in additional chairs at floor level can be completely blocked from view. Perhaps this is just a reviewer’s quiblle, as trying to see who is doing what is pretty essential. Another perennial issue is the lack of ventilation in some of the secular venues. Simply opening all the windows before the concert and during the interval would help.
Next year’s festival is from 18-21 May 2018, over the Whitsun weekend. Tickets go on sale from 13 November.