Festival d’Ambronay

Festival d’Ambronay
28 September to 1 October 2017

Since 1980, when it was founded, the Ambronay Festival has been a key part of the early music world. In recent years, the activities of the Ambronay Cultural Encounter Centre (based in the former Abbey buildings adjoining the magnificent Romanesque Abbey church) have expanded, and now includes impressive provision for young musicians. For the past couple of years, Ambronay has been part of the European Union supported eeemerging project (Emerging European Ensembles), an EU-wide cooperation project dedicated to the selection, training and promotion of young early music ensembles. The last of the four long weekends of the annual Ambronay Festival (which runs annually from mid-September to early October) is devoted to these eeemerging ensembles, but several of them also performed in the previous three weekends of the Festival. The theme for this year’s Festival was ‘Vibrations: Souffle’, roughly translating as Vibrations: Breathing, part of a triptych of festivals under the same Vibrations theme.

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I attended the penultimate weekend of the Festival, from Thursday 28 September to Sunday 1 October 2017. The first two day’s concerts took place in Lyon, about 60km south-west of Ambronay.

Ensemble Céladon: No time in Eternity
Croix-Rousse Theater, Lyon, 28 September 2017

Ensemble Céladon is a viol consort, performing with and directed by countertenor Paulin Bündgen. For their programme No time in Eternity, they alternated music of the English Tudor period with compositions by Michael Nyman, including arrangements of several of the Songs for Ariel, a series of present-day musical reflections on the same period. This was a very promising performance, with attractively clean singing from Paulin Bündgen and exceptional playing from the five viol players in some technically difficult music. Off-stage spoken extracts from Shakespeare’s Tempest were interspersed between some of the pieces. The music was well-chosen, reflecting the different styles of the Elizabethan era alongside Nyman’s imaginative compositions with their complex writing for the instruments. The concert included a new commission from Michael Nyman, giving the concert its title. A video of it can be found here. It concluded with Nyman’s extended “Self-laudatory hymn of Inanna and her omnipotence”.

No Time in Eternity
The visual element of their staging was created by Félicie d’Estienne d’Orves. Although some of the visuals and lighting were very effective, the periodic blasts of cold white light directed straight into the eyes of the audience were rather disturbing. Slightly less disturbing was Bündgen’s habit of conducting while singing, presumably aimed at himself as the musicians were seated in front of him and couldn’t see his conducting. The voice and viols were amplified, with very artificial reverberation added, resulting in some curious sound effects. We also had the often witnessed lengthy viol consort ritual of frequent but unnecessary tuning where, one by one, all the players individually untuned each of their strings before returning them to where they were in the first place. On this occasion, four of the players tuned to one of the bass viols, who himself didn’t tune at all throughout the evening, raising the obvious question as to why, if his viol stayed in tune,  did all the other players assume that theirs hadn’t. But none of these points detracted unduly from a well-presented and well-performed concert.

Nexus Baroque: Bach fredonné, Bach chuchoté
Auditorium de Lyon: Salle Proton de la Chapelle. 29 September

The two Friday evening concerts in the Auditorium de Lyon started with an early evening concert under the title of Lever de rideau (curtain wall), highlighting one of the 2016 eeemerging ensembles, Nexus Baroque. They were founded in 2012 and aim to present old music in new ways. Their programme Bach hummed, Bach whispered, explored the music of Bach through arrangements of arias and chorales for their forces of two recorders, cello, lute, and organ/harpsichord. Although not all the arrangements were entirely happy being transformed into this different instrumental line-up, this was a nicely conceived concert that presented some well-known music in a new way.

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Bach: Mass in B minor
Bach Consort Leipzig, Sächsisches Barockorchester
Auditorium Orchestre National de Lyon. 29 September

The main evening concert took place in the vast space of the Auditorium Orchestre National de Lyon, an enormous almost semi-circular space clearly influenced by Lyon’s impressive Roman amphitheatre on the hill two rivers away. The exterior (pictured above) is one of the less impressive examples of 1960s architecture. The interior (below) raises questions of acoustics (not least its ability to amplify audience coughs, of which there were plenty) and musical intimacy. I’m not convinced that this is the best venue for a performance of a piece like Bach’s B minor Mass. On this occasion, the forces of Bach Consort Leipzig and the Sächsisches Barockorchester only filled the central third of the very wide stage, and were some distance from the closest members of the audience seated across what, in Roman times, would have been the extended acting area.

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In these difficult circumstances, the 19-strong choir and period instrument orchestra did well to project the music with such clarity to the more-or-less capacity audience. Particularly effective instrumental contributions came from violinist Katherina Arendt, oboe Markus Müller, bassoons Moni Fischaleck and Michaela Bieglerova, flautists Matthias Kiesling and Dora Ombodi, organist Mechthild Winter, and horn player Thomas Hauschild who not only dealt magnificently with the tricky solo in the Quoniam, but then joined the choir for the rest of the evening. Although there were a few moments when the phrasing of the choir and orchestra didn’t quite match, and there were too many large rallantandos, the direction by Gotthold Schwarz was otherwise impressive. The vocal soloists were Hanna Zumsande, soprano, Susanne Krumbiegel, mezzo, David Erler, and impressive alto, Tobias Hunger, tenor, and Tobias Berndt, bass.

Bach and Friends
Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas, Lambert Colson.
Ambronay Abbey. 30 September

The Saturday concerts in Ambronay started with a pair of afternoon concerts by Les Surprises marking the release of two new recordings from Ambronay Editions. They appeared first in duo formation, with their director Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas, organ, and Lambert Colson, cornet à bouquin (cornetto), playing music by Scheidemann, Bach, Buxtehude, Reiche, Scheidt and Böddecker, the latter an organist and brother of a cornettist. Scheidemann’s organ intabulation of Lassus’s Confitermini Domino worked particularly well with the cornetto taking the florid solo line intended for a solo stop on the organ. I was less convinced by their version of Bach’s Erbarme dich, but the Veni Salvator hominum by Philipp Böddecker (1607-83) was an interesting work in the multi-sectional stylus phantasticus. Their encore was the Buxtehude’s touching elegy to his father, the Klag-LiedMy only quibble was the title of the programme, Bach and Friends, bearing in mind that I don’t think Bach ever met any of them, apart from the then aged Buxtehude, and that one died 31 years before Bach was born. Despite what was clearly intended as a concert to be performed without the interruptions of applause, one man in the front row started to applaud loudly and inappropriately after one of the early pieces but fortunately nobody else joined him. Curiously, he didn’t applaud at the end but left as soon as others applauded. Curious.

The Heritage of Rameau
Les Surprises, Yves Rechsteiner
Ambronay Abbey. 30 September

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Later that afternoon larger forces of Les Surprises (pictured above in rehearsal), together with organist Yves Rechsteiner, took the stage for The Heritage of Rameau, again with some doubts about the title, as Handel didn’t seem to fit the Rameau heritage notion. That said, this was an excellent concert. Although a keen organist, Rameau left no organ music, so Yves Rechsteiner has helpfully made his own organ arrangements for organ solo of Rameau’s operatic and instrumental works. For this concert, we heard a series of organ concertos reconstructed by Rechsteiner from extracts from Rameau’s Les Indes galantes, Les Sauvages, Les Enfers, Dardanus, Hippolyte et Aricie, Platée and Zoroastre. 

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His exciting transcriptions/recompositions are excellently conceived and composed. This was the first time that Les Surprises had performed this programme with a chamber organ rather than a full-sized church organ, and the lack of the distinctive colours of the French Baroque organ was noticeable. But the vitality and crisp articulation of Rechsteiner’s organ playing, and the sheer delight of the music, certainly made up for any lack of organ colour. Whether or not Handel had anything to do with the heritage of Rameau, the organ was certainly an appropriate size for one of his famous Organ Concertos.  I was very impressed with the direction and harpsichord continuo of Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas and the playing of Les Surprises, particularly that of their co-founder, viola da gamba player Juliette Guignard, and their principal violinist, Alice Julien-Laferrière (both pictured below, in rehearsal), whose infectious enthusiasm and evident enjoyment of the music added much to the spirit of the occasion. Juliette Guignard played with Les Arts Florissants in the last concert of the weekend, and Alice Julien-Laferrière was the principal violinist in the main evening concert, given by Ensemble Correspondances.

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Ambronay Editions will be releasing a CD of this programme later this year. There are several YouTube videos of them performing this repertoire in Toulouse with a ‘proper’ French Baroque organ. For example, here.

Polyphonies Spatialisées 
Ensemble Correspondances, Sébastien Daucé
Ambronay Abbey. 30 September

The main Saturday evening concert in Ambronay Abbey was an extraordinary tour de force of some of the spectacular Italian polychoral music that influenced the French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (who spent some time in Italy in the 1660s), given by the choir and orchestra of Ensemble Correspondances (one of the associate ensembles of the Ambronay Cultural Encounter Centre) directed by Sébastien Daucé. They opened with the distant sound of Charpentier’s Sub Tuum Praesidium, sung by a capella female voices from behind the main stage. There followed a musical tour around Italy, calling at the musical centres of Cremona, Bologna, Faenza, Venice, Rome and Ferrara with music by Merula, Cazzati, Tarditi, Cavalli, Caresana, Beretta, Benevoli, Caresana and Legrenzi before the concluding and dramatically climactic Messe à quatre chœurs by Charpentier.

In Bologna, Charpentier may have witnessed the polychoral music of the San Petronio Basilica, represented here by Maurizio Cazzati’s Motet pour San Petronio, a rhythmically complex work for three choirs, two positioned part way down the abbey’s nave.  A female voice plainchant Hodie Maria Virgo, including some impressively coordinated ornamentation, was followed by an instrumental Sonata à 12 by Cavalli and his large-scale Magnificat, with 20 singers positioned on three stages, all having key moments in the frequent 3-voice sections. The slow harmonic pulse of the music allowed the intertwining vocal lines to be heard clearly in the generous acoustic. The dispersit section was particularly impressive, as was the fugal Esuurientes.

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Charpentier spent much of his Italian sojourn in Rome, home of Francesco Beretta, whose Messe à quatre chœurs was a predecessor of Charpentier’s own version. For this, the three stages towards the front of the abbey nave were joined by a fourth stage right at the back of the abbey, by the main doors. Each of the four choirs included voices and instruments, making a grand sound in the magnificent surroundings of Ambronay Abbey.

Before the concluding Charpentier Messe à quatre chœurs, we heard three pieces by Legrenzi. His Oro suplex featured the extraordinarily compelling voice of Lucile Richardot (pictured), listed in French style as a bas-dessus (contralto), but with a voice that was almost in a tenor register, such was its warmth and depth.

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The concluding Charpentier Messe à quatre chœurs was performed beautifully, notwithstanding the technical complications of directing four widely-spaced groups of musicians. The singers’ ability to integrate the distinctive French ornaments into their vocal texture was a major feature, as was impressive playing from the instrumentalists, notably Adrien Mabire and Benoît Taintueier, cornettos, and (again) the exuberant violinist Alice Julien-Laferrière, who joined in the mood of the bouncy Agnes Dei by breaking into a little dance of her own. Director Sébastien Daucé dealt with the technical and musical complexities of the evening’s music brilliantly, conducting facing the audience for the multiple-choir pieces. Organ interludes helped to cover the complex movements of musicians between pieces.

Canticum Novem: Ararat

At the same time as the Abbey concert, in a large tent (Chapiteau) next to the abbey’s domestic buildings, the group Canticum Novem gave a concert under the title of Ararat, featuring Armenian music, based on the dialogue between France and Armenia established in 1252 on the accession of Leo II of Lusignan to the throne of Cyprus, Jerusalem and of Armenia. This programme features on a new album by Ambronay Éditions. They repeated parts of this in an informal late-night session in the festival bar.

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À la Française
The Goldfinch Ensemble
Salle Monteverdi. 1 October

The final day of this third weekend of the Ambronay Festival started with a delightful concert by one of the current eeemerging consorts, The Goldfinch Ensemble, now in the second year of their Ambronay residency, where they have been exploring French chamber music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The two Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre pieces were in the form of a continuous sequence of movements, similar to the stylus phantasticus, each in the form of a series of conversations between the violin, flute and viola da gamba with the support of the harpsichord continuo. Françoise Couperin’s extended La françoise (from Les Nations) has an opening Sonade that is so extended and multi-sectional that it would be easy to confuse it for being the whole piece, rather than just an introduction to the following sequence of dance movements. The four young musicians coped well with the complicated musical ideas and showed a thorough understanding of the performance of music from the French Baroque.

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A couple of things for them to think about is that (as is so often the case with young musicians) they did not make it clear when, or whether, they wanted the audience to applause, one of the responsibilities of the performers themselves. They could also do with rehearsing their currently rather uncoordinated bowing (as in bending over, rather than anything to do with violins or viols), and should also agree what encore to play before the event, rather than discussing it while walking back to the stage.

Family Ciné-concert: Pat & Mat
Les Traversées Baroques
Chapiteau.

Ambronay has a wide range of events coinciding with their main festival concerts, including various tours of the abbey buildings and events for children and families, including this afternoon Ciné-concert when the three musicians of Les Traversées Baroques played an accompaniment composed by Etienne Meyer to a sequence of silent animated films Pat & Mat, originating in the former Czechoslovakia in 1979. A capacity crowd of youngsters and parents (including one young man with a very infectious laugh) enjoyed the antics of the two characters in a series of domestic do-it-yourself mishaps and the inventive accompanying music.

Venezia: Madrigaux de Monteverdi
Les Arts Florissants, Paul Agnew
Ambronay Abbey. 1 October

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The final concert of the weekend was a return visit of Les Arts Florissants with Paul Agnew in a completion of their six-year exploration of the music of Monteverdi. I reviewed what I think was the very first concert of this series, in London’s Union Chapel in 2011, when we heard Monteverdi’s first book of madrigals. This concert explored the 7th and 8th booksThe sensuous chord sequences in the Sinfonia to Tempro la Cetra were just a foretaste of the harmonic and musical delights to come, with Paul Agnew’s singing showing the clear difference between the 1619 7th book and its predecessors, not least in the break from the madrigal tradition.  The following Al lume de la stelle featured more tightly wrought suspensions, notably in the Luci care e serene section with the two sopranos Miriam Allan and Hannah Morrison giving an early demonstration of their excellently coordinated singing, something brought to the fore in the following Chiome d’oro where they dueted over a ground bass. Hannah Morrison’s outstanding solo singing made Se i languidi miei sguardi (from the Lettera amorosa a cove sola) one of the highlights of the whole concert. More examples of Hannah Morrison’s excellent singing, and acting, ability came in the Book VIII Dolcissimo usignolo (where she joined the solo voice of Miriam Allan), Lamento della Ninfa, and Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. The Lamento‘s Amor – dicea, il ceil revealed an emotional intensity that expressed more in five minutes than Wagner manages in five hours. The Combattimento, sung with tenor Sean Clayton, was a similarly spellbinding performance, both vocally and in terms of the interaction between the two singers.

The consort singing of the six members of Les Arts Florissants (Miriam Allan and Hannah Morrison sopranos, Melodie Ruvio contralto, Paul Agnew and Sean Clayton tenors, and Cyril Costanzo as a very solid bass) was exquisite, whether singing together or in the frequent smaller groupings. The presentation and staging were also impressive, moving between the central stage area and the surrounding elevated staging.

And so ended the third of the fourth weekends of the Ambronay Festival, and my first visit to this delightful setting, which includes a special area for children and families, a restaurant and bar, and a friendly shop selling books and CDs from the Ambronay Edition and other related labels.

Bach and Friends, and Correspondance photos by Bertrand Pichène. All others, including below, by ABW.

Random images of Ambronay

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