Antwerp: Laus Polyphoniae 2018

Laus Polyphoniae 2018
1618 / BEFORE
Antwerp, Belgium. 16-20 August.

This year’s Laus Polyphoniae festival (part of the Festival van Vlaanderen / Flanders Festival) celebrated two anniversaries. It is 25 years since the festival first started, and 400 years since the opening of the former St. Augustine’s Church (in 1618), now the home of AMUZ (Augustinus Muziekcentrum), the hosts of Laus Polyphoniae. The festival lasted from 16 – 26 August, and I was invited for the first four days, from the opening concert on Thursday 16 August to the lunchtime concert on Monday 20 August. Taking the date of 1618 as the hinge, the Laus Polyponiae festival ‘1618 / Before’, was the prelude to a further series of concerts under the title ‘1618 / Beyond’, the English names being original, not translations.

Focussing on music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the programme covered repertoire from the year 800 up to the early 17th century, when the early Baroque style began to emerge from the tradition of Renaissance polyphony. It featured musicians from Flanders and beyond, with a wide-ranging programme of concerts and events, the International Young Artist’s Presentation, and various associated events included a study day exploring the recently discovered Leuven Chansonnier and other educational activities. Unless otherwise noted, all the concerts took place in AMUZ.


Thursday 16 August
La Pellegrina
Scherzi Musicali

The festival opened in grand style with what turned out to be one of the last musical gasps of the Renaissance era: the lavish 1589 musical celebrations for the Florence wedding of Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici and Christina of Lorraine. The Belgian group Scherzi Musicali performed the six Intermedii composed by a variety of composers to be performed between the sections of the play La Pellegrina. The six Intermedii represent an assumed Greek heritage for Florence and reflect the role of music in human development through a series of scenes from Greek mythology, building toward a spectacular finale as the gods celebrate their gift of music, and the wedded bliss of the wedded couple.

The first part reflects the harmony of the spheres, opening with an extended aria from Armonia (Harmony), here sung (I think) by Wei-Linn Huang, taking the role of the composer’s wife in the first performance.  This is followed by the story of King Pierus’s daughters who lose in a singing contest and are turned into magpies. The third, Il combattimento pitica d’Appolo, represents the battle between Apollo and a dragon at Delphi, followed by the defeat of demons and the start of a new golden age, featuring scenes of fire and brimstone. Before the triumphant finale, we hear Jacopo Peri’s famous Dunque fra torbid’onde (Thus in Murky Waters) as Arione sings praise to Apollo before being thrown into the sea and swallowed by a dolphin. This monody was sung by Nicolas Achten, director of Scherzi Musicali, together with two echo singers.

The build-up to the dramatic concluding O fortunato giorno and O che nuovo miracolo was well handled, the first really ff moment coming right at the end. With around 19 singers and 22 instrumentalists, there was a rich tapestry of sound, with no fewer than six players of various lutes/chitarone, five of viola da gamba and lirone, along with two organs and a mild-toned regal. Notable individual contributions came from Sarag Ridy, harp, Patrizio Germone, violin, and Sarah Dubus, cornett.


Friday 17 August
La Cetera d’Or
Andrew Lawrence-King

Those who hadn’t read the programme notes before the Friday lunchtime concert would have been confused by what seemed like a bizarre tuning ritual during what seemed to be a piece of music. In fact, it was Andrew Lawrence-King’s rather curious representation of King David tuning his harp, as the man himself gazed down from the top of the organ case at the opposite end of the church.


Featuring Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque harps, the programme explored ‘Heaven, harps and early opera’ with music from around 1120 through to Monteverdi in the early 17th century. The Renaissance harp had the particularly interesting sound of a ‘bray harp’ although, arguably, all three harps used could have originally had the little pins that the strings vibrate against, as the style lasted from the Gothic to the early Baroque era.  Lawrence-King declaimed between and during some of the pieces, the first being a story of Daniel (Ludus Danielis) from around 1200. Machaut’s Le dit de la harpe was overlain by his description of what each (of just five) harp strings represented. The Renaissance section included Issac’s version of Adieu mes amours, with des Pres’s version sung beforehand. Lively dances concluded the section, before the much large Baroque harp was sprung into action with Malvezzi’s Sinfonia: Le Musica delle sfere, a nod to the previous evening’s La Pellegrina concert.


Jacob Obrecht: Missa Maria Zart
Cappella Pratensis

The first evening concert (at 8pm) took place in Sint-Andrieskerk and was given by the eight singers of Cappella Pratensis with their performance of Jacob Obrecht’s Missa Maria Zart. Dating from around 1515, it is the largest known setting of any polyphonic mass. Although Obrecht worked principally in the Low Countries, including Antwerp, this monumental work seems to stem from Obrecht’s visit to the court of Maximilian I in Innsbruck, where it is known that a mass was commissioned. The devotional song that the Mass is based on comes from the same area of the Tirol, and dates from around the period. It was the basis for several other pieces, including one for organ, composed by Arnolt Schlick in 1512. The singers were grouped around the large choir book (pictured), reconstructed for the occasion by one of the choir members.

The Mass is of massive scale and a complex construction that would require a mathematics degree to fully grasp. For those not of that intellectual background, the slow harmonic pulse made for a hypnotic sense of unfolding time. The Maria Zart theme was sung in unison at the start, and on three other moments during the Mass. What would have been far more helpful in following Obrecht’s detailed working of the many lines of the melody would have been to print it in the programme book.

With one exception, the balance between the four parts was good, with the upper superious voices blending well with the lower parts. The single exception was one of the tenor singers at the back of the group. This individual made himself prominent in several ways, not least by singing the cantus line too loudly, particularly when higher in his register. His movements were also visually distracting, in contrast to the sensitive stillness of his seven colleagues. For a piece that demands congruity of vocal texture, this was unfortunate.


The Landscape of Polyphony
The World of Franco-Flemish composers 1400-1600
Huelgas Ensemble

The late-night (10:15) concert in the magnificent St-Pauluskerk was given by Laus Polyphonae regulars, the Huelgas Ensemble. Their programme, Landscape, reflected the apparent influence of the scenery of northern France on composers, a subject explored in the new book by the Huelgas Ensemble’s artistic director, Paul Van Nevel – Het landschap der polyfonisten. De wereld van de Franco-Flamands (The Landscape of Polyphony. The World of the Franco-Flemish School) which was launched earlier in the day. The premise of the book is that composers such as Johannes Ockeghem, Josquin des Prez and Antoine de Févin were influenced by the landscapes and architecture of the Bruges, Mons, Saint-Quentin, Boulogne region, leading to a music based on symmetry, proportion and rhythm.

Photographs from the book were projected onto screens above the singers during the concert, but I am afraid that I failed to see any connection between them and the music or composers in question. Most of the photos (taken over the past 25 years) showed the effect of modern industrial-scale agriculture, with several portraying vast treeless expanses, occasionally scored with artificially precise tractor tracks. The few images from earlier times showed a very different landscape and one that might have been more suited to the thesis of the concert. The 12 singers were, as usual, in a circular format in the centre of the St Paul’s nave, rotating through 90 degrees at intervals. On this occasion, they stood under a scaffolding structure with screens above them. They all had curious double-headed lights slung, snake-like, around their necks, which frequently shone rather disturbingly into the eyes of the audience.

That said, musically, the concert was outstanding, with the Huelgas Ensemble’s trademark well-blended voices demonstrated perfect intonation and a refreshing lack of vocal mannerisms. Usefully, the music progressed in more-or-less chronological order, ending with the 6/12 part Agnus Dei from Nicola Gombert’s Missa Tempore Paschali, the rolling motion of the inner voices overlapping each other over a slow harmonic pulse.

Huelgas Ensemble

Saturday 18 August
International Young Artist’s Presentation

An integral part of the Laus Polyphoniae festival is the International Young Artist’s Presentation (IYAP), a joint project between AMUZ and Musica: Impulscentrum voor Muziek. It is no longer run as a competition, as it was pre-2010. There is a focus on historically informed performance (HIP) and a repertoire range that extends to 1920. Six selected young groups are offered three days of coaching by Raquel Anduez and Peter Van Heyghen. After this, on the Saturday and Sunday of the Laus Polyphoniae festival, each group gives four short concerts (two each day) to a roving audience that moves in groups between different venues during a day-long walk. The audience includes representatives of many international music festivals, record companies and broadcast outlets who not only provide feedback but are also able to offer professional opportunities to the groups. The young groups are also offered “unrelenting promotion” by the IYAP organisers.

My roving group started in the splendid surroundings of the Snijders & Rockox House, two adjoining early 17th century palaces (now a museum) and a room hung with rather gruesome ‘still-life’ paintings, mostly depicting dead animals that would have upset any vegetarians or animal-lovers.

Dichos Diabolos

The first group was the five-strong Dichos Diabolos with their programme Epidemics. This aimed to recreate the musical background of the Black Death through works written by composers who, with one exception, were thought to have died from the plague. They reflected the concept of the power of music to cure illness noting, for example, the fact that the prior of a monastery near Brussels in 1480 offered music to soothe the fevered brow of the famed artist Hugo van der Goes. In a well-presented programme, they segued between pieces by Falconiero (the composer who inspired the group’s name), Castello, Gibbons, Marini, Cimi, and Fontana. The five players (Cristina Altemir Montaner, violin, Emiliano Pérez Riveroll, cornetto and recorder, Dimitri Kindynis, viola da gamba, Marit Darlang, dulcian, and Ariadna Cabiró Berenguer, harpsichord) all had their chance to shine in a programme where all instruments were treated equally. I particularly liked the violin playing of Cristina Altemir Montaner, Marit Darlang’s performance of Marini’s Sonata nona per doi fagotti and Ariadna Cabiró Berenguer Gibbon’s harpsichord solo.


Ensemble Pretiosa

The next concert was given in the University Chapel by Ensemble Pretiosa with the title of Adjuro vos ô filiae JerusalemSandwiched between two of Buxtehude’s gorgeous Membra Jesu nostri cantatas (Ad Pedes andAd Latuswere related cantatas by two contemporary North German composers who settled in Scandinavia: Christian Geist (c1650 – 1711) and Christian Ritter (c1645– 1717). Both using the chorus I say to you, O daughters of Jerusalem from the Biblical songs of Solomon, and were cleverly linked.  In Geist’s Adjuro vos ô filiae Jerusalem, the lover asks the daughters of Jerusalem to tell her friend that she is sick of love. In Ritter’s Hymenaeus ê cantico Salomonis the friend of the lover replies. All the music was from the Düben collection, now in Uppsala’s University Library.  The six singers and six instrumentalists blended well together, with particularly good solo moments from the two sopranos Baiba Urka and Cornelia Fahrion. Violinists Zeynep Coskunmeric and Tommaso Toni made significant contributions, as did Kentaro Nakata playing viola da gamba. The Geist and Ritter cantatas were discovered, transcribed and edited by the organ player, Fynn Liess, and this was their first modern performance. That might explain why he seemed to take most of the applause for himself, without much acknowledgement to the other musicians.


Ensemble Cicchetti Musicali

The third concert took place in a B&B hidden down a narrow passageway. The three recorder players of the Ensemble Cicchetti Musicali (Marina Buchberger, Angela Lehner, and Sofía Bartolomé Martín) stood in the stairway hall, with the audience spread between that and two adjoining spaces. It was a very difficult acoustic for both performers and audience, not least because it unduly amplified the audibility of disturbing subharmonic frequencies, that curious acoustic phenomenon where a series of bass notes can be heard bouncing about well below, and often out of tune with, those actually played. That said, the concert itself was excellent, the three players using the tiny space well in different configurations of groupings. Each of them took turns to introduce pieces, which were divided into three groups under the overall title of Mosaic – Triumph and Celebration, Fortuna, and Nature. Most of the pieces (from the decades around 1400) were originally texted, exploring themes of love, religion, nature, and the virtues. Their playing was exemplary, beautifully articulated and demonstrating a real sense of interpreting, rather than just playing, the music.


Le Voci delle Grazie

The first group after lunch was Le Voci delle Grazie, playing in a large, rather austere room in a building that I couldn’t identify behind Sint Pauluskerk. Their programme Dialogo delle due Marie reflected the death of Jesus as perceived by the two women who loved him best -the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. One of the highlights was Merulo’s extraordinary Canzonetta Spirituale sopra alla nanna. Built over a hypnotic two note repeated bass line, the gorgeous music of Mary’s evocative lullaby to the baby Jesus hides some gruesome words as Mary predicts her son’s future – That gracious face, Today redder than a rose, Will be fouled with spit and blows, In torment and pain. Gamba player Garance Boizot adopted a rather unusual pose, standing next to the harpsichord player while resting her gamba on a raised portion of the harpsichord player’s seat. A curious looking arrangement that had the effect of obscuring the sound of the gamba, at least from my seat. It seemed obvious that this was a group set up by the two singers, evidenced in part by the fact that they only marginally acknowledged their fellow musicians.



The next concert was in the ideal space for performance, the little Kaiserkapel. The duo of Yi-Chang Liang, recorder, and Machiko Suto, harpsichord, performing under their name of IJ SPACE gave a concert of Sonatas by Corelli, Mancini, Sammartini. This was a very well presented, and excellently performed concert. Yi-Chang Liang displayed impressive virtuosity alongside sensitive application of well-integrated ornaments, and Machiko Suto provided very impressive harpsichord continuo support, with well-judged improvised treble realisations. The Corelli Sonata in F Major, Opus 5/44 was written for violin, but the version played was a transcription for recorder by the British publisher Walsh, with its incorporated ornaments with graces by an eminent master”.


Ensemble Florestan

A local art gallery next to St Jacob’s church was the venue for the final concert of the IYAP, allowing the atmosphere of a house concert. Ensemble Florestan (violinist Noyuri Hazama and Shin Hwang, fortepiano), played the Violin Sonata Op.5 by the little known Jan Václav Voříšek followed by Schubert’s Violin Sonata in A major (Grand Duo), D. 574 under the title of Wie ein Lied: Songs without WordsThe music represents the influence of song on the two composer’s music. Voříšek’s Sonata had a dramatic opening, followed by little elegiac moments amid an otherwise rather turbulent mood. I liked the performers use of silence in the link to the second movement. With a change of bow and a lowering of the fortepiano lid, Noyuri Hazama then moved on to the larger scale four-movement Schubert Sonata, a piece that encapsulated their introductory remarks about the name of the group as representing the contrasting characteristics of extrovert and introvert.


Although most of the chosen venues were interesting in themselves they, unfortunately, did not always suit the music that was to be performed in them, leading to some unnecessary acoustic problems for the young musicians. The information in the printed programme books did not always tally with the programmes, or the names of the performers, leading to a reviewer’s nightmare and moments of confusion for the audience.

Polyphony by Pierre de la Rue and his Contemporaries
Tasto Solo

The first Saturday evening concert was given by Tasto Solo under the title of Deplorations: Polyphony by Pierre de la Rue and his Contemporaries. The Flemish polyphonist Pierre de la Rue died 500 years ago, in November 1518. The Deplorations (songs of lament) that became so popular during the early 16th century in Burgandy and Flanders usually refer to the sorrowful life of Margaret of Austria, daughter of the Hapsburg Emperor Maximilian I and Governor of Burgandy. After the opening Libera me, chanted from the side of the AMUZ St Augustine’s church, we heard the funeral hymn Proch dolor / Pie Jhesu composed by de la Rue in honour of Maximilian, incorporating elements of the Gregorian Requiem Mass as a cantus firmus. Two other pieces commemorated the death of Margaret’s brother Philip the Handsome. The five singers were supported by a chamber and portative organs. harp, and gamba. I was surprised that Guillermo Pérez felt the need to conduct so many of the pieces when he wasn’t playing the organetto. His rather frenetic conducting style was visually distracting and unattractive, not least his habit of pointing at singers, and usually seemed out of keeping with the mood of the music being performed, most of which was meditative. The singers usually ignored him, and seemed perfectly capable of directing themselves. Unfortunately, I was similarly unimpressed with Pérez’s organetto playing, his habit of swelling onto notes creating instability of pitch and his rather mannered articulation and phrasing frequently at odds with the style of his fellow musicians.


Ego Sum Homo
Musical Visions of Hildegard von Bingen
Tiburtina Ensemble

The late-night concert was given in Sint-Andrieskerk by the Tiburtina Ensemble directed by soprano Barbora Kabátková. Their programme was Ego Sum Homo: Musical Visions of Hildegard von Bingen with music from the Riesen Codex. Hildegard’s hypnotic, melismatic hymns in honour of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary and Rhineland saints, were interspersed with anonymous polyphonic and instrumental works. Processing in from the far corner of the church, the singers were led by their artistic director Barbora Kabátková, waving her arms around in a figure of eight motion that could have been seen as conducting had it any discernible beat or was visible to the singers walking behind her. During the rest of the concert, when she wasn’t busy playing the harp, she continuing these rather bizarre physical antics which, apart from looking silly, were something that the Hildegard of Bingen would probably have frowned on, not least because it distracted focus away from the music. The eight singers were accompanied by Margit Übellacker playing what was described as a ‘dulce melos’ (although it looked more like an early version of a hammered dulcimer to me), the occasional harp and an unnamed recorder player.

At times, it was difficult not to be reminded of the height of the Hildegard phase some 20 years ago, when her music became popular amongst rather earnest looking female singing groups, trying to look suitably ‘spiritual’ by adopting what I used to think of as the ‘Hildegard face’. The eight singers rearranged themselves in different numbers and formats, and with slightly varied interpretations of Hildegard’s arching musical lines. There are limits to the extent of heterophony that can be tolerated without it beginning to sound a bit new-age or all-purpose Middle Eastern, but the Tiburtina Ensemble’s arrangements managed to stay just short of those limits.

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Sunday 19 August
New Music and Medieval Models
Mala Punica

During the day, there was a repeat of yesterday’s International Young Artists presentation. The first of the evening concerts was given by Mala Punica under the title of Reworkings: New Music and Medieval Models. Music from 1318 to the end of the 14th century was performed, all based on earlier models by composers such as Machaut, da Caserta, Ciconia and da Perugia. Two new pieces by Argentinean composer Pablo Ortiz (commissioned for Laus Polyphoniae) were a response to the music of Hildegard. If conducting had been a bit of an issue in some of the previous concerts, in this one it was the most prominent feature of the concert. Pedro Memelsdorff, the group’s artistic leader and recorder player, producing some of the most ineffectual, and indeed insulting, conducting I have ever witnessed. His embarrassingly bizarre gestures, contortions and look-at-me antics were bad enough, but when an ‘artistic leader’ feels the need to tell a fiddle player, sitting about one metre away (and only just missing the wild sweeps of his hands) how to play every note it is time to wonder what rehearsals are for. He even continued his weird behaviour when he was behind the musicians and out of their sight, something they frequently managed arranged, as in the photo below. On the occasions when the four singers were left to their own devices, the tenor took over the role of dominator, both visually and aurally, frequently causing an imbalance in the voices. 

The new pieces by Pablo Ortiz used a variety of vocal techniques, the punchy start to Puente no puente soon dissolved into whispers, while the wild yelp at the end of the Trois visions de l’Amen seemed a little out of place. I was impressed by the singing of the sopranos Barbara Zanichelli and Belén Vaquero, and for the extraordinary tolerance of the two fiddle players José Manuel Navarro and Svetlana Fomina


Maria, Stella Maris
Gothic Voices

The late-night concert was Maria, Stella Maris given by the four singers of Gothic Voices (Catherine King, mezzo, Steven Harrold, Julian Podger, and Stephen Charlesworth)in the Sint-Andrieskerk. Bearing in mind my previous comments, this was a much-needed demonstration of conductorless performance: an exemplary performance, and an object lesson for many of the groups I had experienced earlier in the festival. The two-part concert explored musical aspects of the Medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary, starting with the mythical and devotional aspects before looking at the more human side. The first part incorporated three extracts from Joanne Metcalf’s Il nome del bel fior, based on a fragment of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The first extract, a wide-ranging monody, was sung by Catherine King from the organ gallery above the other three singers. The second extract hovered around one note in close harmony, while the final extract was a more extended piece in mostly stepwise movement with a central section centred on a rocking two-note motif. The second part included Andrew Smith’s two-part Stond wel, moder, under rode, ending with a particularly dreamy Amen. Their well-controlled programme ultimately led to the joyous late 13th-century motet Alleluia psallat, the final verse sung, as at the start, from the organ gallery. As well an extremely professionally presented concert, this was an object lesson in consort singing, with each note arrived at perfectly. The Sunday late-night concert is always a bit of a graveyard slot, so it was a shame that more people didn’t experience this concert, particularly some of the earlier performers at the festival. .

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Monday 20 August
Mit Coloraturen Gezyret
The Lute Duo in the 15th Century
Marc Lewon & Paul Kieffer

My final event of the week-long festival was the Monday lunchtime concert given by the lute-playing pair, Marc Lewon & Paul Kieffer. With 28 pieces over an hour, the description given during the introduction of this as ‘hardcore’ music was perhaps apt. The lute duo was a popular musical combination in the decades around 1500, although there are no surviving musical examples of the improvisations on pre-existing pieces that was the focus of their repertoire. Using written evidence from the Wolfenbüttel Tablature and Pesaro Manuscript and Spinacino’s later lute print, Lewon and Keiffer have made their own arrangements in the style suggested by the limited evidence of the period. The arrangements ranged from simple harmonisations with minimal coloratura to interpretations with rapid figuration and rhythmic complexity. Composers given this treatment included Agricola, Busnois, Isaac, and Josquin des Prez. It was interesting to compare the way a lute player elaborates on a given melody with the similar development of an early keyboard tradition, with a similar focus on applying elaborations and division on and between notes. The acoustic of AMUZ’s main hall, the former church of St Augustine, were perfect for this intimate performance.


I wasn’t able to stay for the main evening concert by Stile Antico, but did hear them rehearsing during the afternoon in the Sint-Pauluskerk. They are a group that has impressed me since I first heard them at what was then called the Early Music Network International Young Artists’ Competition in York in 2005. Singing in a circular format, with no director or conductor, they produce a perfectly coordinated vocal sound. They sounded on very good form.

As part of the anniversary of the St Augustine church, a sumptuous book has been published – Een barokke parel als hedendaagse concertzaal / A baroque marvel as a contemporary concert hall.


Photos: ABW