Itinéraire Baroque en Périgord Vert
26-29 July 2018
The annual Itinéraire Baroque en Périgord Vert festival is now in its 17th year. It is based around the towns of Ribérac and Verteillac in the northern part of the Dordogne-Périgord region of western France. It was founded by Robert Huet and Ton Koopman, the former a local resident and director of the organising committee, the latter the artistic director and occasional import from The Netherlands, along with musical friends and family. It started as the one-day event that gave the festival its name – the Itineraire Baroque, a musical tour of some of the little-known Romanesque churches of the region. It was intended as much to draw attention to these often locked churches as for any musical intent. It has now expanded to cover four days over the last weekend in July. The theme for this year’s festival was ‘Looking towards Spain’, although only a few concerts made more than a casual nod in that direction. In fact, as a weekend dominated by Netherlanders, it was no surprise that several of the concerts focussed on the historic battles between the Dutch and the Spanish, viewed from a Dutch point of view – perhaps ‘Trying to get rid of Spain’ would have been a more accurate title. The programme for this year’s festival can be found here.
Thursday 26 July
The festival opened in the principal venue for the weekend, the Église Abbatiale de Cercles, the former Romanesque priory church of Saint-Cybard, with one of the later fortress fronts typical of the region. It includes some fine Romanesque carvings and a ceiling whose vaulting ribs wander about all over the place. Reviewing the first concert last year, I commented that positioning the musicians on a platform at the crossing of the church, with some of the audience seated behind them, was a poor choice, so was glad to see that this time they were in the altar end facing down the length of the church.
The focus of this first concert (given by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra with Tilman Lichdi tenor, directed by Ton Koopman) was on instrumental colour, under the banner of Sacqueboute, Hautbois d’Amore et Chalumeau. They opened with Bach’s Sinfonia to the secular cantata Non sa che sia dolore (BWV 209) the frequent ‘sighing’ motifs reflected the farewell nature of the text. The flute and violin have prominent roles, here well played by Marion Moonen and Rie Kimura respectively. The first of two Telemann concertos followed, featuring the oboe d’amore, played by Antoine Torunczyk (TWV 51:A2). Torunczyk later excelled in the concluding Marcello Concerto pour hautbois, perhaps better known through Bach’s keyboard transcription. We also heard the distinctive (but rarely heard) sound of two treble chalumeaux, notably in Telemann’s concerto TWV 52:d1. A forerunner of the modern clarinet, these tiny instruments, not much bigger than a soprano recorder, have a beautifully mellow and subdued tone. Telemann is a master of instrumental writing, adjusting the texture to suit, in this concerto by having frequent passages where the two chalumeaux play alone. Often unfortunately replaced by modern clarinets, the use of the correct period instruments revealed the sound-world that Telemann intended, reinforced by the restrained mood of the opening Largo. Ernest Schlader and Markus Springer were the impressive players.
Between these instrumental pieces came Bach’s cantata Ich armer Mensch (BWV 55) beautifully sung by tenor Tilman Lichdi, his clear, pure and unaffected voice being ideal for Bach’s melodic lines. Less successful, compositionally, were pieces by G. J. Werner, best known, if at all, for getting Haydn into trouble, but otherwise probably deserving of his current obscurity. The Cantilena de immaculata: Ihr blumenreiche Felder was a miniature essay, while the more extended Steinhartes Felsenherz, an aria from the oratorio Der gute Hirt, was noted for the unusual combination of trombone and chalumeaux. Albrechtsberger’s B flat Trombone Concerto was nicely played by Simen Van Mechelen.
Friday 27 July
Baroque en Cercles
A day of three concerts in the Église Abbatiale de Cercles opened at midday with Amore Hai Vinto given by L’Astrée performing examples of the music by Vivaldi that now resides in the Turin Universty LIbrary. Soprano Julia Wischniewski sang three cantatas: Amor, hai vinto RV 651, Elvira anima mia RV 654, and Lungi dal vago volto RV 682, producing an attractively focussed sound, reflecting the different moods well, with some well-executed ornaments and elaborations on the musical line. The cantatas were interspersed by three Sonatas (RV 14, 83, and 27), with some very impressive playing by violinist Paola Nervi and cellist Rebecca Ferri, the latter one of the smiliest people I have ever seen.
I was far less impressed with the harpsichord continuo playing and general demeanour of Giorgio Tabacco. He may have seen himself as the director of the group, but his position behind all the other musicians must surely have meant that he should have given them some responsibility for their own musical performance. Instead, we had the demeaning sight of the vocal soloist and cellist frequently looking over their shoulder for some sort of direction. Tabacco’s harpsichord continuo playing was far too dominant and obtrusive and, judging from the fact that the harpsichord and theorbo were frequently playing exactly the same treble line, was obviously pre-prepared rather than being improvised from the notated bass line. I found his approach to his female musicians frankly disturbing, particularly when taking a bow. Patting them patronisingly on the back, and trying to hold hands with them, lead to more than one well-deserved Melania moment.
A fascinating afternoon talk by Albert Recasens (pictured, switching impressively between French and English) on Spanish music of the baroque era shed some light on a little-known repertoire. Indeed, given the Spanish theme of the weekend, it was unfortunate that so little Spanish music was actually performed – a missed opportunity.
This was followed by a lively concert of music and dance from the Iberian Peninsula and southern France given by the Catalan ensemble Xuriach, directed by Anna Romaní. With music by de Visée, Lully, and anonymous composers, the choreography was based on the style of the period, taken from treatises from 1704 and 1725. The accompaniments included a wide range of instruments, several played by Marc Riera, including one that looked like a portable dulcimer that he hit with a little stick.
The evening concert was one of the most curious of the weekend’s event: a duet recital with the title of ‘Master & Pupil‘ played on organs and harpsichords by the former pupil and teacher Tini Mathot and Ton Koopman. Relationships between teachers and pupils are a bit of a complex subject these days, but Mr and Mrs Koopman (for such they are) made such a liaison a focus of their concert. A pan-European range of music centred rather too much on the Spanish composer Soler. His music can be quite fun in small doses, but with three concertos and a sonata, it did rather overstay its welcome on this occasion. The organs were shrill little chamber organs, for some reason placed next to each other rather than spaced apart as the larger church organs would have been in Spanish churches. As well as confusing the antiphonal effects of the music, it made for a bit of an aural battering for anybody sitting near the front. This was not helped by using loud registrations more-or-less throughout the evening.
Ton Koopman’s rather frenetic and percussive style of playing did the music, or our ears, no favours, in contrast to Tina Mathot’s occasionally more expressive and sensitive style. On the harpsichord, the thud of fingers hitting the key-bed was almost as loud as the sound of the strings. Excessive speed caused acoustic muddle in most of the pieces, notably in a helter-skelter performance of Bach’s well-known organ Prelude and Fugue in C (BWV 547), played for some reason on two harpsichords rather than the organs. For the second half I moved to the back of the church, but the aural battering and confusion remained to the extent that my close proximity to the church door proved irrististable, leading to my listening to the concluding WF Bach Concerto from a field behind the church, hoping to see the blood moon lunar eclipse.
Saturday 28 July
Saturday was the focus of the festival, with the sequence of Itinéraire Baroque concerts that was the focus of the festival from its earliest days. After an opening concert, the audience split into five groups to circulate around five venues, all but one in churches with some surviving Romanesque architecture, where musicians repeated 30/40 minute concerts at 11:00, 12:15, 15:00, 16:15, and 17:30. The five venues were different from last year, revealing the extraordinary wealth of historic buildings in the region. The mass of cars arriving in tiny villages caused inevitable logistic and environmental issues, but the musical rewards from the individual concerts were high. For me, this would have been an ideal opportunity to invite younger musicians and groups to play. The experience of repeating the same short concert five times to different audiences would be a tremendous learning experience, as well as an opportunity to make themselves known. As it happened, as with last year, only a few of the performers fell into this category.
The day opened with the large audience collected in one place, the Église de Mareuil, for a recorder recital by Reine-Marie Verhagen, playing music from Jacob van Eyck’s 1644 Der Fluyten Lust-hof on a range of differently sized recorders, many of which looked a little late in period style. A solo recorder recital can be a bit of a trial in the best of circumstances, but on this occasion, I would have prefered rather more expression and subtlety in the playing, as heard from most of the other recorder players that I experienced over the weekend.
The first concert of my circuit of the five venues was at the Église des Graulges with its Romanesque west front (pictured above) and Ensemble Clematis’s concert In Stile Italiano. They started with a focus on the Style phantasicus pieces from Rossi, Cavalli and Cario Farina (his impressive extended Sonata detta la Moretta) that dominated the early Baroque period, each one a mini-opera in itself with their sequences of moods and musical styles. Violinists Stéphanie de Failly and Amadine Solano demonstrated a reasonable understanding of the changing musical styles of the period, the later pieces (by Kempis and Legrenzi) moving towards the High Baroque style of the end of the 17th century. Their encore was a very impressive ‘battle’ between the two violinists, with Amadine Solano, now positioned opposite Stéphanie de Failly, brilliantly responding with improvised ornamental and diminutions to the musical motifs passed to her.
The next venue was the attractively restored little Église de Puyrénier and a recital of rather inconsequential guitar pieces by Fernando Sor (1778-1839), a distinctly un-Baroque composer. A sequence of 17 little pieces, written for the early 19th century saloons of London or Paris, is perhaps not the most absorbing of concert experiences, however sensitive the playing, in this case on a romantic guitar made in 1820 and using the lute technique of finger-tip plucking.
The graveyard slot after-lunch concert was given in the Église de Saint Sulpice de Mareuil (with its fine Romanesque carvings, pictured above) by Ensemble Albori Musicali and their programme Virtuosi da Camera of Vivaldi and Telemann and a piece by Pierre Prowo formally accredited to Telemann (as TWV 42:d10). The contrast between recorder and violin, played with commendable expression and sensitivity by Jan Van Hoecke and Liv Heym respectively (pictured below) made for some very attractive sounds. I particularly liked the Largo of Telemann’s Trio Sonata (TWV 42:g9), where the violin plays a beautifully simple and eloquent melodic line over a hypnotically repeated seven-note recorder arpeggio motif. I was less impressed with the cello continuo playing, which was not only too loud but also lacked subtlety in tone and timing.
The next concert (at the Église de Connezac) proved to be one of the most interesting of the day – indeed, of the whole festival. The Austrian musician Franziska Fleischanderl demonstrated and played her Salterio (tympanon), a delightful little instrument related to the psaltery or dulcimer, in this case her own restored original dating from 1725. Performing repertoire from the Spanish repertoire for the instrument, she explored the many different sounds of the instrument, either playing battuto, using either wooden or leather-covered little mallets, or pizzicato, plucked by the fingers. Her own researches into the instrument and repertoire have revealed a wealth of information and many surviving original instruments. She played an anonymous Sonata and a set of Folia variations from a 1754 Madrid manuscript, as well as a Minuet by Manuel Canales., which featured four-note chords. You can read more about this instrument, and view videos of Franziska Fleischanderl playing here.
The final concert of the day was given in the courtyard adjoining the splendid Château de Aucors. It was given by the Dutch group Camerata Trajectina and reflected the war between the Netherlands and their occupiers, Spain, and the songs of the Dutch freedom fighters after the 1568 Battle of Heiligerlee. I think this is the first time that I have experienced a concert sung entirely in Dutch, and I’m afraid that I did not find it the most musical of languages. That said, I enjoyed the singing of tenor Nico van der Meel. It was good to hear the two younger continuo players, Constance Allanic and Arjen Verhage playing viola da gamba and theorbo.
Sunday 29 July
The festival ended as it started, back in the Église Abbatiale de Cercles, with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra directed by Ton Koopman and a programme pairing two of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos with two Orchestral Suites. It started with the Concerto that the programme said it would finish with, the third Suite, with its famous second movement Air, here given a well-paced performance, with no harpsichord continuo and none of the romantic-era overtones that even the most devout period instrument orchestras can sometimes be tempted with. It was paired with Brandenburg IV, with some outstanding violin playing from the orchestra’s leader Catherin Manson. Of the two recorder soloists, I favoured the more expressive style of the player listed second, Inés d’Avena. Cellist Werner Matzke also impressed.
The second half opened with Brandenburg III, with one of the violinists moving to viola and the double bass playing the third cello part. Two Adagio chords (forming a Phrygian half cadence) are all that Bach provides to separate the two Allegro movements. They are open to many interpretations. Ton Koopman chose my least favourite option, inserting a complete solo harpsichord movement, playing from a score presumably from another Bach work, although I didn’t recognise it. Apart from thinking that is the very last thing that Bach would have done himself (if he had wanted a complete movement, which I doubt, he would surely have improvised one), but to me, it also completely outbalances the structure. If anything is added to the two chords, I suggest it should be the simplest of improvised additions, probably from the principal violinist. But as there are nine soloists (none of which are the harpsichord player), there are many other options.
The final piece was the 4th Suite, giving the three all-British trumpeters another chance to shine. The three oboists and bassoon player Rebecca Mertens also excelled in this piece. Whereas some of the earlier concerts in Cercles had several empty rows of seats, this one was packed out.
And so ended another impressive weekend of fine music, fascinating architecture, and sunflowers. Alongside this weekend festival, there is also year-round educational work for local young people, often bringing in tutors from The Netherlands. For this year’s annual spring concert, the Jeune Chœur de Dordogne performed Monteverdi’s Scherzi Musicali in the church of Notre Dame in Ribérac. The festival is run as a not-for-profit charity, aided by a sponsor circle who can take advantage of some very impressive tax benefits for French residents (66% of a gift can be deducted from total tax bills). As was the case last year, there were a number of errors in the programme book, and the English translations were sometimes rather odd. The order of pieces was not always that published, but whether this was the result of a change of mind of the performers or the inaccuracy of the programme book was not clear. You can read my review of last years Itinéraire Baroque here.
A few more pictures from the weekend (all ©ABW) are below.