Tage Alter Musik Regensburg: 2018

Tage Alter Musik Regensburg
18-21 May 2018

Seventeen concerts of early music in just four days is the promise of the Regensburg Tage Alter Musik festival. It is held annually over the Pentecost/Whitsun weekend, alongside non-musical Regensburg celebrations, including a beer festival and fairground that brings the local youth out in their distinctive Bavarian outfits. Tage Alter Musik takes place within the architectural and historic delights of this beautiful city on the Danube – the entire city centre is a World Heritage site. Venues for the concerts include austere Gothic, glittering Baroque/Rococo, and the historic Reichssaal in the Altes Rathaus, for centuries the permanent seat of the Parliament of the Holy Roman Empire. The weekend runs from Friday evening, with two concerts, followed by five concerts on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, the latter including a concert that started at 00:15 in the morning!

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Friday 18 May

The festival traditionally opens with the choir of Regensburg Cathedral, the Regensburger Domspatzen, on this occasion accompanied by Concerto Köln directed by Roland Büchner, in the Dreieinigkeitskirche (Trinity Church), and featuring the music of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. They opened with his 1831 setting of the Lutheran prayer, Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich (based on Da Pacem, Domine), a beautifully short and simple chorus built on the distinctive sound of two intertwining cellos. The substantial work was the 1840 Lobgesang, described by Mendelssohn as a Symphony-Cantata but posthumously, and with no authority, given the name of Symphony No 2. It was commissioned by the City of Leipzig to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the invention of printing and is one of Mendelssohn’s most powerful works. The extended choral cantata comes after a 25-minute three-movement instrumental Sinfonia, with its rousing trombone opening theme. If I were a descendant of the inventor of printing, I would be a bit upset that, despite the reason for its composition, there is nothing in the text to suggest any link with printing. God gets all the kudos with this hymn of praise, culminating in the famed chorale, Nun danket alle Gott. The vocal soloists were soprano Miriam Alexandra, Leon Degat (a Domspatzen boy treble), and tenor Werner Güra, all three excellent. Key instrumental moments came from Vincenzo Casale, clarinet, Lorenzo Alper, bassoon, and Julia Brana, flute. Roland Büchner conducted with conviction and with impressively restrained style.

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The Friday late night (10.45) concert featured the British vocal ensemble Alamire and the English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, directed by David Skinner, with their programme The Spy’s Choirbook – Petrus Alamire & the Court of Henry VIII (in the Schottenkirche St. Jakob, with its extraordinary carved porch). Petrus Alamire (c1470–1536 – the name is based on the solfege syllables la-mi-re) built a career in several European courts as a music copyist, merchant, diplomat – and a spy for England’s Henry VIII. The concert focused on music from the beautifully illustrated choral book (British Museum: Royal MS 8.g.vii), presented by Petrus Alamire to Henry VIII and his wife Catherine of Aragon in 1516. Originally written for the French Louis XII and his wife, the words were changed for Henry and Catherine. The theme is generally of mourning and birth – a bit of an issue for Henry at the time. The works are anonymous in the book, but concordances with other sources have revealed the names of many of the composers, including de la Rue, Mouton, Strus, Févin and Fayrfax. Some seem intended for instruments alone, and several were sung together with cornets and sackbuts, sometimes as a complete consort, or as a single instrument taking one of the polyphonic lines.

The music was frequently rather dense in texture, and a succession of 17 such pieces was not an easy listen even for the most dedicated follower of late-night Renaissance polyphony. The ten singers were on good form as were the four instrumentalists, playing cornetts, pommer, schalmai and tenor trombones. Amongst the vocal highlights was de Therache’s Verbun bonum et suave with its sequence of richly textured two-part passages. An anonymous Recordamini quomodo praedixit filium was an attractive instrumental piece. But for me, however professional the performers were, somehow the concert somehow lacked what it would take to lift it above mere professional efficiency. One curiosity was that the choir’s starting notes, even for a capella pieces, came from a tenor trombone rather than a discrete hum from the conductor. David Skinner’s overly flamboyant conducting style was an unwanted distraction, seemingly focussed on drawing attention to himself rather than to the music or the musicians. Perhaps it was telling that he took all the audience’s applause for himself, with little more than a nod to the musicians behind him, who were not even invited to take a bow.

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Saturday 19 May

Saturday’s five concerts started back in the Schottenkirche (11am) with the concert Breathtaking – voice and zinc musically intertwined given by soprano Hana Blažíková and a small group of instrumentalists (two violins, viola da gamba, organ, harpsichord, and lute) led by cornettist Bruce Dickey. The zinc (or cornett) has a sound very similar to the human voice, to the extent that I once described a young singer as a ‘cornett on legs’. The same description could be applied here with Hana Blažíková’s crystal clear and focused sound, perfect intonation, vibrato-free voice, and sensitive use of ornaments. The programme included pieces by Cazzati, Marini, Merula, Carissimi, Bassani from the early 17th-century, A. Scarlatti (arias from his 1697 Emireno), together with a composition from 2015 by Greek composer Calliope Tsoupaki, his evocative Mélena imi (Nigra sum). with it plaintive opening, tiny harmonic shifts, and viola da gamba flourishes. Occasionally the cornett playing was too loud for the voice, although at other times it demonstrated the ability to play beautifully quietly. Jacob Lindberg played a couple of Kapsberger pieces on theorbo, introduced by a Toccata by Piccini. I liked the well-articulated violin playing of Franciska Anna Hajdu, in contrast to the other violinist who tended to slither between notes.

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The early afternoon concert (2pm. in the Neuhaussaal, Theater am Bismarckplatz) was given by the European Union Baroque Orchestra (EUBO, directed by Bojan Čičić) together with the puppet theatre group Favoletta for their show Concertatio in Silva. The three-act show (with free entry for children) was based on a fairy tale about a quarrel between trees in a forest, set to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, albeit with all the movements rearranged in a different order. Celebrations for the 1000th birthday of an oak tree ends with an argument about which of the other trees are best, ending with them all going off to start their own forests. As the seasons rotated, the trees swapped foliage to suit. The nine-strong members of EUBO (concluding a short tour of this show) were led by Bojan Čičić, who was also outstanding in the key role of violin soloist. On this occasion, EUBO consisted of impressive young musicians from Spain, France, and Poland. The puppet show was designed by Michael Schneider, with figures by Monika Seibold.

The later afternoon concert was given by the Belgian group InAlto (in St. Oswaldkirche) with their programme La Liberazione di Venezia based on 16th and 17th centuries compositions responding to the liberation of the city from the plague epidemic. The three sections covered the planning and construction of the famed Santa Maria della Salute during the early 1630s. The promise to build a church included pieces by G. Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Riccio, and Rovetta; the laying of the foundation stone was accompanied by music by Grandi, Bassani, Buonamente, Rovetta, and Filago; and for the Thanksgiving service we heard Monteverdi’s Missa à 4 from the Selva morale e spirituale and the Laetaniae della Beata Vergine. The six singers and seven instrumentalists performed well, both individually and in consort. I liked soprano Perrine Devillers’ singing in the Monteverdi Salve Regina, particularly her well-articulated flourishesMarie Rouquié’s violin contributions were eloquent, and Dimos de Beun provided very effective organ interludes to cover the stage movements between pieces. But, given the wide contrast of moods, from despair to elation, I wondered if there could have been rather more subtlety in the interpretations.

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The main Saturday evening concert (in the Trinity church) had the title In progress – Re-formations with Johann Sebastian Bach. It was given by La Folia Barockorchester and Ensemble Polyharmonique.  Their exploration of the various (mostly Italian) influences on Bach’s music included pieces by Peranda, Conti, Marcello, Kuhnau, Palestrina, Stölzel, and Durante, as well as Bach. There were no fewer than three mass settings (from Peranda, Palestrina, and Durante) in the Kyrie / Gloria format also used by Bach. Many pieces were Bach’s adaptations or rearrangements of pre-existing pieces, for example, his keyboard version (BWV 974) of the Marcello Oboe Concerto, both versions of which were performed, the oboe concerto with Tatjana Zimre as the impressive soloist, the harpsichord version played by Andreas Küppers, his habit of spreading most of the chords rather disturbing the pulse. Of the singers, soprano Joowon Chung particularly impressed me in Conti’s cantata Languet anima mea as did Magdalene Harer as soloists in the Stölzel/Bach Bist Du bei mir (BWV 508). Although Robin Peter Müller directed from his first violin position, one of the six Ensemble Polyharmonique singers also added his own rather confusing directions, which looked rather odd, whatever it did to the cohesion of the combined groups.

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The late night concert (10:45pm. Schottenkirche St. Jakob) was given by the Tenebrae Consort with their programme The Golden Age of Spain – Tomás Luis de Victoria – Responsories and Lamentations for Holy Saturday. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the weekend. After the opening six-part funeral poem Versa est in Luctum by Alonso Lobo, a contemporary of Victoria (sung from the far altar end of the church), they sang the Victoria Responses Amicus meus, Judas mercator, O vos omnes, and Sepulto Domino, the Incipit oratio Jeremiae Prophetae, and the 1603 Missa pro defunctis: Requiem, written after the death of the Empress of Spain and Austria (and sister Philip II), his hitherto patron. The Tenebrae Consort sing a very wide range of repertoire but demonstrated impressive security in this distinctive early repertoire, helped by the impressive clarity of the four sopranos and purity of intonation from all. In sharp comparison with a choral conductor mentioned above, Nigel Short was impressively modest in his conducting style, putting the focus on the ten singers and, perhaps tellingly, acknowledging them fully during the enthusiastic applause.

Sunday 20 May 

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The five (or was it six?) Sunday concerts started in the historic Reichssaal (11am) with the Swiss group Les Passions de l’Ame led by violinist Meret Lüthi with Sabine Stoffer. They played four Partitas (I, III, V, and VI) from Biber’s Harmonia Artificiosa Ariosa using no fewer than eight differently tuned violins (with six in scordatura tunings), carefully laid out in order on benches to either side of them. Accompanied by a continuo group of cello, violone/lira da gamba, harpsichord/organ, and lute, they explored the extraordinary range of musical textures and exotic sounds that Biber conjures up in the four contrasting pieces. Each has its own distinctive election of movements, ending in a substantial piece like the Passacaglia or Ciacona that ended the opening and concluding Partitas. This excellent concert combined outstanding technical ability and an attractive entertaining approach to music making. Their continuo realisations were particularly well thought out. Biber’s thrilling, and often wild writing in the distinctive Stylus phantasticus genre was aided by the distant sound of the cathedral bells after the Pentecost Mass, and the sound of the Rathaus clock striking 12. For their encore, they managed to get the entire audience humming an ostinato bass – a fitting end to a spellbinding concert.

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The early afternoon concert was (in the Gothic Minoritenkirche) was a curious affair. Given by La Camera Delle Lacrime it was devoted to music from the late 14th-century Le Livre Vermell de Montserrat. Included in the manuscript are a variety of songs for pilgrims, which the compiler states were included “Because the pilgrims wish to sing and dance while they keep their watch at night in the church of the Blessed Mary of Montserrat“. It is stressed that “. . . no songs should be sung unless they are chaste and pious . . .  these should be used modestly, and take care that no one who keeps watch in prayer and contemplation is disturbed“. These instructions had escaped the notice of director Bruno Bonhoure, whose performance was about as far from modest as you could get, with his cringing look-at-me antics. Directing a local choir with the subtlety of an officious traffic cop, he stopped at nothing to make his presence felt (and heard), acting more like a down-market TV entertainer than a serious musician. He gave the impression of trying to intimidate his fellow musicians, pretending to hit the lute player with a drumstick, telling off one of the local amateur choir members, and making a point of giving the soprano soloist her note, when it had already been provided, delicately, by the dulcimer player. The weird hand actions of the choir were choreographed by an ‘artistic director’, Khaï-dong Luong, and mostly involved the sort of movements normally reserved for the under-5s. So all respect to the six musicians and the large local choir who put up with all this nonsense and, despite all the distractions, played well, particularly Gayané Doneyan and Tiphaine Gauthier (pictured) and soprano Clémence Montagne.

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The later afternoon concert was a highlight of the weekend, with the performance of five of Bach’s motets by the outstanding Belgian group Vox Luminis, in the Basilika St. Emmeram. They opened with the double-choir Singet dem Herrn and Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, the attractive, unforced, and well-articulated voices of the eight singers bringing a clarity to the texture that was to be the hallmark of the whole concert. Der Geist included instruments doubling the vocal lines. The Sinfonia from the cantata Am Abend desselbigen Sabbats, with its jaunty little hiccup at the end of the first phrase, was followed by an excellent performance of Jesu, meine Freude, the differing moods of the various sections explored with sensitivity. The Adagio from the Sinfonia to the Easter Oratorie segued into Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir before the concluding Komm, Jesu, komm. This really was a perfect performance, the balance between the singers and the instrumentalists being particularly well-judged. Lionel Meunier directed while singing bass, his subtle indications to his colleagues being an object lesson for more flamboyant directors. Of the singers, three sopranos had particularly prominent solos, Zsuzsi Töth, Victoria Cassano, and Rachel Ambrose Evans. Key instrumentalists were Tuomo Suni, violin, Lucy Scotchmer, cello and Jasu Moisio, Oboe.

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The main Sunday evening concert was given by the impressive Finnish Baroque Orchestra, under the inspirational and collaborative direction of violinist Amandine Beyer (in the Dreieinigkeitskirche, 8pm).  Their programme of Suites – Concerti grossi – Soloconcerti included works by Telemann, Muffat, and Leclair, all three composers keen to bring together the varying international styles of the time, notably the Italian, French, and German styles. Apart from the two violin concertos, all but one of the pieces were in the forms of dance suites. Telemann’s descriptive opening Hamburger Ebb’ und Fluth set the scene for some excellent playing, the variety of Telemann’s orchestral colour being immediately evident, with key moments for oboe, bassoon, recorders, and a piccolo. Muffat’s 1701 short Concerto Grosso 6 “Quis Hic”  represented the style of a slightly earlier era, but he had the last word with the concluding Ciacona “Propitia Sydera” one of his instrumental highlights with its delightful little twirling triplet motif. Violin Concertos by Telemann (TWV 51:E3 – not, perhaps, his best) and Leclair (his Op.7/3) allowed Amandine Beyer to demonstrate her undoubted skills in some energetic playing. A particularly interesting piece was the Suite from Leclair’s 1746 opera Scylla et Glaucus, again with prominent roles for the oboes and flutes. The players that deserve special mention are Irma Niskanen, violin, Petra Aminoff and Pauliina Fred, flutes & recorders, Robert Herden and Piia Maunula, oboes, Jussi Seppänen, cello, and Jaakko Luoma, bassoon.

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The two late-night concerts in the Leerer Beutel (the second starting after midnight) saw the return to Regensburg of Barokksolistene, starting with an innovative musical portrait of Henry Purcell under the title of Purcell’s Playground – a very apt name, given their ‘relaxed’ approach to interpretation. A very well-rehearsed series of improvisatory impressions of Purcell’s music contrasted songs and instrumental pieces with pure theatrics. The principal singer was soprano Berit Norbakken Solset, who opened with If music be the food of love before countertenor Per Buhre took over with Here the Deities approve. The Evening Hymn followed, aptly, as the man sitting next to me had already ‘bid the world goodnight’. Most of the pieces dissolved into imaginative jazz-like flights of fancy and entertaining stage antics, aided by some nifty dance moves from Steven Player.

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In what was then officially Monday (00:15), the men of Barokksolistene then transferred to the adjoining room where a tightly-packed audience witnessed one of their Alehouse Sessions, in this case Vol. 2: The Nordic Impulse showing the influence on the music culture of northern Europe of music from 17th-century English taverns. Then, as now, it seems that for Scandinavians, “no trip to England is complete without a visit to the local pub . . . the second home of the English since the Middle Ages”. Liberally lubricated, they frolicked around a tiny stage in another well-rehearsed bit of improvisatory fun.

Monday 21 May

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The final day of the festival started in the Reichssaal with the ensemble Stylus Phantasticus with soprano Claire Lefilliâtre and their programme La carte de tendre or the Geography of Feelings, an exploration of the “land of love”, in this case in 17th-century France, with music by Guedron, Boesset, Lejeune, Moulinié and Tessier. Led by gamba player Friederike Heumann, the six instrumentalists provided excellent accompaniments to the singing of Claire Lefilliâtre as well as providing their own instrumental contributions with two Canzonas by Cherubino Waesich, an attractive Fantaisie by Claude Lejeune and the Suite in G from Mersenne’s 1636 Harmonie Universelle. This was a very well-balanced and thoroughly professional performance, mercifully devoid of some of the antics we had seen in earlier events. Claire Lefilliâtre’s singing was sensitive both to the varying moods of the pieces, and to the characteristic French style of performance. There were important instrumental contributions from Jean Tubéry on cornetts and recorders. One thing the audience and I were very pleased about, and something I have suggested in previous Tage Alter Musik reviews , was a short pause to open windows to relieve the stifling heat – a very welcome breath of fresh air.

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The early afternoon concert (in the Minoritenkirche) came from Sollazzo Ensemble, a young multi-award-winning Swiss group founded in 2014 in Basel – an important centre for early music performance. Their programme was Florence around 1350: music at the height of humanism and reflected the musical side of the Italian cultural explosion of that time, with pieces by Lorenzo and Giovanni da Firenze, Stefani, and the famed organist Landini. The music combined virtuosity with elegance and melodic charm. Led by Anna Danilevskaia, Sollazzo Ensemble also included soprano Perrine Deviller, countertenor Andrew Hallock, and tenor Vivien Simon, together with Roger Helou portative organ, Franziska Fleischanderl, hammered dulcimer, and Sophia Danilevskaia and Anna Danilevskaia on fidel. All three singers had the ability to gently project their voices into the cavernous acoustic, with the sound of soprano Perrine Deviller in particular often floating above a  slower moving lower texture. The instrumentalists provided very effective accompaniments and solo pieces. This was an extremely well-planned and professionally performed concert. I particularly liked the way they segued the pieces and stopped audience applause between pieces, usually with the tiny sound of a single note from one of the instruments. This is something that many far more experienced groups fail to do – let the audience know when, and when not to, applaud.

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The penultimate concert of the festival was in the gold-drizzled baroque interior of the Alten Kapelle, given by the nine instrumentalists of Baroque Atlantique from France, making their German debut. Their programme was given the title of An imaginary concert – Johann Sebastian Bach – instrumental works. If I understood it correctly, the aim was to replicate the sort of concert that Bach might have programmed with the Collegium Musicum at the Zimmermann’s coffee-house concerts in Leipzig. If that was the case, then it fell far short of the intended idea, with a sequence of arrangements of Bach pieces that didn’t seem to have any real logic or intellectual basis, an were unlikely to have been performed in the Zimmermann concerts. Bach’s music can survive many different performing styles but, in this performance, it was often a struggle .  There were frequent problems with intonation, lack of clarity of the inner parts, lack of clear articulation, inappropriate slithering between notes from the cello soloist, and rather self-indulgent playing from the lead violinist (and director), including a painfully slow Andante in the BWV 1041 Violin Concerto. They concluded with a curious arrangement of the organ Trio Sonata BWV 530, in the form of a concerto for two violins, rather than the obviously intended trio structure. What is usually a bright, sparkling, and rather sparse three-voice texture was reduced to a muddy sound, with unnecessary inner parts added by the harpsichord continuo and the rest of the orchestra. And even in this version for 2 violins, the first violin dominated throughout.

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The Tage Alter Musik weekend ended with the 17th concert, devoted to Jan Dismas Zelenka’s Psalmi Vespertini, with selections from his three important Vesper cycles, given by Zelenka specialists Inégal – Prague Baroque Soloists under their director Adam Viktora (in the Dreieinigkeitskirche). Composed between c1725/30, the Psalm and Magnificat settings include an impressive range of musical styles, many pointing compositionally towards the future. Zelenka is a master of orchestral and vocal colour, as was demonstrated in this concert, from the grandeur of the opening Dixit Dominus (ZWV 68), with its attention-grabbing pauses in the opening section, to the solemnity of the concluding De profundis (ZWV 96). The focus was on the more dramatic settings, with some spirited singing and playing from the 17 singers and 21 instrumentalists. Of the soloists, I particularly liked the sopranos Gabriela Eibenová and Lenka Cafourková. Key instrumentalists were Lenka Torgersen, violin and leader, Libor Mašek, cello, Marek Niewiedzial & Petra Ambrosi, oboes, and Lukáš Vendl, organ. Adam Viktora conducted Zelenka’s approachable music with impressive style and gusto. When the music risks becoming predictable, Zelenka seems to come up with something that draws the intention, one example being the little rhythmic hiccup in the Amen of Nisi Dominus (ZWV 92). A sequence of eight such pieces was perhaps not the most audience-friendly approach to programming, and it could have done with an interval rather than just a tuning break after about an hour. I also wondered if the Magnificat (ZWV 108) would have made a better conclusion than the De profundis (ZWV 96), not least because of its more rousing Amen.
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And so concluded an impressive series of concerts. Very hard work for a reviewer, with 17 concerts to cover, one starting after midnight, but also very rewarding for the impressively large audiences. Most concerts seemed to be entirely sold out, even in the largest venues and the latest times. As well as the concerts, there was the traditional exhibition of music, CDs, and instruments in the historic Salzstadel adjoining the Sreinernen Bridge over the Danube. As well as the musical highlights, I will also remember the lady who kept giving me chocolates, and the annual appearance of the embarrassingly enthusiastic collector of autographs who hunts down performers immediately after the performance (or even during the interval), following them towards their dressing rooms and asking for repeat copies of their autograph – at least two, and up to around five signatures are requested. He even asked for my autograph, twice, even though I explained that I was nothing to do with the performance. I admire the patience of the musicians who suffer this awkward interjection.

Next year’s Tage Alter Music is from 7 – 10 June 2019. Details will be posted here, where currently you can find more details and programmes for the 2018 performers. Many of the concerts were recorded for later broadcast on BR-Klassick. Dates of broadcasts are below –

 

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