Antwerp: Laus Polyphoniae 2019

Laus Polyphoniae 2019
Mary of Burgundy & The Burgundian Court
Antwerp, Flanders. 16-20 August

The 26th annual Laus Polyphoniae explored the flourishing cultural scene in the time of Mary of Burgundy (1457-1482), one of the most powerful women in Western Europe during the late Middle Ages. She came to power in the Netherlands in 1477, aged 20, but found that her father, Charles the Bold, had left an empty state treasury, hostile neighbouring countries and domestic revolts. Thanks to her diplomatic skills, the young Duchess managed to calm the situation, notably in Flanders. She was the most sought-after bride in Europe with many suitors, eventually marrying Maximilian of Austria, thereby linking the House of Burgundy to that of the powerful Habsburgs. She died in 1482, at just 25 years old after a fall from her horse. The week-long Laus Polyphoniae festival featured secular and religious music relating to Mary of Burgundy and her time, performed by ensembles from Belgium and abroad, including Stile Antico, Ensemble Leones, Comet Musicke, Utopia and Huelgas Ensemble. I was able to attend for most of the first five days, including the International Young Artist’s Presentation (IYAP) events on the first weekend. 

The festival opened (on Friday 16 August) in the former church of St Augustine, now the concert hall of the AMUZ music centre, with the Sollazzo Ensemble, past members of the eeemerging project. Their programme, Triste plaisir, reflected key moments in Mary’s life with music that Mary might have heard or that reflected the emotions of some of the events in her life. Composers included Gilles Binchois, Guillaume Du Fay, Pierre Fontaine, Heinrich Isaac, Marbrianus de Orto and Alexander Agricola. The nine-strong group (four singers and five instrumentalists, playing fiddles, vihuela da mano, lute and organ) performed in different groupings in an attractively planned sequence. The organist, Iason Maramas not named in the programme. I was impressed with his playing of the distinctive organ (by Walter Chinaglia, who was pumping the little rear bellows, and based on the 1480 Hugo Van der Goes painting). The distinctive sound of the pure lead pipes giving an attractively sweet vocal sound, aided by a sensitive and controllable little transient chiff that sounded like the pitter-patter of little feet. It blended beautifully with the voices and was also heard solo in O dulcis Maria from the c1450 Buxheimer Orgelbuch.

The sensitivity of the playing and singing was apparent from the start, the delicate little fiddle crescendo a lovely way to move from silence to music. The title piece, Binchois’s gentle Triste plaisir was sung beautifully by soprano Perrine Devillers. Fellow soprano Yukie Sato produced some impressive ornaments in her Tart ara (Molinet). The complex rhythms of Ave ancilla trinitasus (Agricola) made a fitting conclusion to an impressive concert.

Sollazzo Ensemble (uitverkocht)
An important aspect of religious life during Mary of Burgundy’s time was the Missa Aura, the Golden Mass, sung during Advent in honour of the Virgin Mary and celebrating the Annunciation. The Missa Aura focuses on Mary’s acceptance of the Angel Gabriel’s message: that she had been chosen to bear the Son of God. Each Mass includes specific musical aspects during the Sanctus, highlighting the point in Medieval Catholic liturgy when that specific moment was deemed to have taken place. A one-day international conference on the Missa Aurea, arranged by AMUZ and the Alamire Foundation, was followed by three concerts, on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday of the first weekend of Laus Polyphoniae, featuring three such Masses by three different composers, performed by three different ensembles: by Guillaume Du Fay (performed by Cappella Pratensis), Johannes Ockeghem (Cappella Mariana) and Johannes Regis (Stile Antico).

In three pre-concert talks, musicologist Jennifer Bloxam (from “the great state of Massachusetts”) discussed her research into this particular type of Marian devotion and added her observations on the links between the three featured composers, and the homage each was paying to the other in their own compositions. The Van Eyck painting of the Annunciation was a key visual clue to the Golden Mass celebrations. The National Gallery of Art weblink gives much of the information that we heard during these pre-concert lectures.

Du Fay & Binchois

The first of the Golden Mass concerts was given by Cappella Pratensis (in Sint-Andrieskerk, Saturday 16 August) with their interpretation of Guillaume Du Fay’s Missa Ecce ancilla domini in a drama-liturgical context as might have been witnessed by Mary and her father Charles the Bold. They sang from a copy of the large choirbook of the Burgundian court chapel (Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium, ms. 5557), interspersing the Mass sections with Gregorian chant sung from copies of the original late-14th-century missal of the Paris rite for the liturgy of Ember Wednesday in Advent, as used in the Burgundian court. The included examples of the late-medieval Annunciation drama from Bruges and Tournai with two singers taking the roles of Gabriel and Mary during the Gregorian In mense autem sexto, with countertenor Andrew Hallock singing the role of Gabriel.

The singers gathered behind a large monastic-style music desk that was swivelled through 180° as they switched from the chant to the Mass, something that at first sight nearly gave me the giggles. They opened with the rather lugubrious Alleluia verbum caro by Antoine Busnois, with its distinctive pauses after each Alleluia. Busnois, who also provided the concluding motet regina caeli II. In the Du Fay Missa Ecce ancilla domini the text of the meeting between Gabriel and Mary is included (Ecce ancilla Domini Beata es Maria) alongside the normal Mass text. The Credo included two moments of real tension. The gregorian chant generally moved step-by-step and included several moments of fauxbourdon, in the Pater Noster to the extent of almost becoming what would later be referred to as a ‘harmonisation’. The singers of Cappella Pratensis sang with a good sense of integrity and consort, with simple direction from within by their director, Stratton Bull.

Cappella Pratensis
The second of the triptych of Missa Aura concerts was given (in AMUZ, Sunday 17 August) by the Czech group Cappella Mariana with their interpretation of the oldest of the three Golden Masses, Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa Ecce ancilla domini, surviving in the Chigi CodexLike the earlier Du Fay Massthe text includes the words of the motet Ecce ancilla Domini in the normal Mass words. My biggest concern throughout the concert was the singing and conducting of director, tenor Vojtech Semerád. Vocally he was far too prominent in music that is principally about equally matched voices. This he combined with a habit of ‘leaning-into’ notes, not quite hitting them cleanly, and/or giving the start of notes little accents, running counter to the normally accepted Renaissance vocal practice. His conducting of the small forces throughout was unnecessary and excessive, his exaggerated movements being in sharp contrast to the impressive stillness of the other singers. To partially make up for that, I was very impressed with soprano Barbora Kabátková, her clear and impressively stable voice sitting nicely on top of the rather low tessitura of the Mass.

Cappella Mariana
The final part of the Missa Aura triptych was given (in Sint-Andrieskerk, Monday 18 August) by the UK group Stile Antico, one of several regulars at these Laus Polyphoniae events. They offered the Missa Ecce ancilla domini by Johannes Regis, the least known of the three composers. Little is known about his life, but he seems to have spent his musical career at the church of St Vincent, Soignies, near Mons, and was secretary to Du Fay to whom this Mass is dedicated. The longest of the three Golden Masses, it is also the most harmonically interesting, using # and b indications in the score for harmonic colour, not for reasons of counterpoint.

The nine lower voices of Stile Antico performed the Mass in a circle at the centre of the church, with the audience surrounding them. The soaring melismas of the chanted Gregorian propers (for the fourth Sunday in Advent) were sung by the three sopranos from the far end of the church, by the altar, only joining their colleague for the final piece, Regis’s festive Oadmirabile commercium. The overall mood of the Mass is sombre, an aspect reflected in the fact that Regis omits all the Alleluias from the seven antiphons that he includes within the Mass setting. The sopranos produced a wonderfully evocative sound in their distant chants. Singing with no obvious direction from anybody, apart from the occasional nod from one or other of them at the start of a piece, and subtle looks between the singers at various combined entries. This was the most interesting of the three Golden Masses and received the finest performance of all three of the vocal groups.

Photo: Marco Borggreve

As well as the International Young Artist’s Presentation (IYAP), my stay in Antwerp also included a late night and a couple of lunchtime concerts, starting with Tasto Solo (AMUZ, Monday lunchtime 19 August). Their programme was called Anna Inglese – a reference to an English singer who served at the courts of the Sforza Duke of Milan and Ferdinand I, King of Naples. She first comes to light in 1455 when she was employed to entertain the 11-year-old Galeazzo Maria Sforza. She was described as a “young English lady with a sweet and subtle voice, not human but heavenly”. Tasto Solo has found music in Neopolitan manuscripts that Anna “may have performed”. A number of these pieces were of English origin, but had been provided with different texts. A completely revised programme was given out at the door, although no explanation was given until the very end of the concert – not ideal for reviewers or audience, although the lady next to me seemed to follow all the incorrect words in the programme book without noticing anything wrong. The finest moments of the concert came from soprano Anne-Kathryn, Bor Zuljan, lute, and Bérangère Sardin, harp, all of whom were impressive.

My biggest concern was the organetto playing of director Guillermo Pérez. The organetto is a very sensitive instrument, capable of many subtle adjustments to pitch and tone, depending on how the little hand-pumped bellows at the back are used. When played solo, these effects can, when used with restraint, be an attractive addition to the sound. But when playing in consort with other musicians, these effects can become a major distraction. On this occasion, Pérez tended to more-or-less follow the soprano’s line, which was not only unnecessary, but the varying inflexions of pitch and tone and a habit of easing into and out of notes conflicted with the purity of Anne-Kathryn’s excellent singing. He also had the unnerving habit of staring intensely into the audience, fixing his eyes on members of the audience.

The late-night concert that evening was given by the instrumentalists of Oltremontano Antwerpen and the six female singers of Psallentes in the splendid surroundings of St. Pauluskerk, one of the finest churches in Flanders. Their programme was In Excelso Throno: Memling’s Concert of Angels, based on the instruments and singers pictured in Hand Memling’s famous triptych, Christ with singing and music-making Angels, one of the masterpieces of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA), sadly closed for many years for restoration.

Memling Music Making Angels.jpg

The painting shows a throng of angels singing and making music. The instruments they are playing provide an excellent overview of 15th-century instrumentation: a psaltery, fiddle, shawm, trompette de menestrels, natural trumpet, lute, harp, organetto and tromba marina. In partnership with the museum, Oltremontano has reconstructed the instruments depicted on the panels, and this concert was their first presentation to the public. The only instrument missing was an organetto. The female singers of Psallentes played the role of the singing angels depicted in the central panel of the triptych. The rich kaleidoscope of instrumental colour was extraordinary, and combined well with the singing of Psallentes and the psaltery playing member of Oltremontano, Indrė Jurgelevičiūtė, who sang a particularly evocative version of the Gregorian In excelso throno antiphon. The buzzy sound of the rarely heard tromba marina was particularly interesting, although the player, Ann Van Laethem, avoided the elevation playing position shown in the triptych. 

Memling seems to have omitted to show a conductor, unless we assume that the raised hand of the centrally positioned Christ indicates that he took that role. On this occasion, Hendrik Vanden Abeele, director of Psallentes, conducted his six singers with overtly extravagant gestures and frequent hitching up of his trousers. In contrast, Oltremontano manages to remain perfectly in time without any intervention from their director Wim Becu. 
My last concert was given by Comet Musicke in AMUZ (lunchtime, Tuesday 20 August). Their programme, Amours mercy featured the music of Gilles Binchois, Johannes Ockeghem and Josquin des Prez. It included the lament Mort tu as navré de ton dart, Ockeghem’s tribute to Binchois, his teacher, as well as Josquin des Prez’s commemoration to Ockeghem, his teacher, Nymphes des bois. With most of the nine members of the group singing as well as playing, often all at the same time, their vocal sound was particularly bold and forthright. The instruments included three (large viola-sized) fiddles, played in three different formations: on the shoulder, across the chest da spalla style, and vertically resting on a stool; a bass viola da gamba and what looked like a double-bass sized violone (although I am not sure if they were around in the 15th-century. There were several moments of spoken text, and Binchois’ Filles a marier was acted out. A fascinating concert.