Korkyra Baroque Festival
31 August – 14 September 2019
The Korkyra Baroque Festival (Korculanski Barokni Festival) was founded in 2012 on the delightful Adriatic island of Korčula (aka Korkyra, Korcula) on the Dalmatian archipelago between Split and Dubrovnik in the southern part of Croatia. Drawing attention both to music and the cultural and artistic heritage of Korčula, the festival runs annually for about two weeks at the beginning of September. Concerts (of just over an hour in length) are generally first performed in the historic fortified town of Korčula and are then repeated in other towns on the island, on nearby islands,, and on the Peljesac peninsula.
The festival opened on Saturday 31 August in spectacular style with a special festival performance of the famous Moreška sword dance, for this occasion accompanied by the Zagreb based Croatian Baroque Ensemble. They were conducted by Ivan Josip Skender, who had arranged the traditional music of the dance which he combined with Baroque music by other composers and his own compositions. The Moreška dance, whose name derives from the word Moorish, originally depicted the battle between the Moors and the Christians, although it is now performed as a theatrical battle between a White King and his followers (all dressed, for some reason, in red) and the Black King who has kidnapped the White King’s bride. The battle between the two armies is in the form of a highly choreographed and increasingly energetic sequence of circular dances, the clashing swords sending sparks into the night sky and, if you sit too close, into the audience.
The white cloths hooked over the dancers’ belts became increasingly bloodied as the (very real) swords clashed violently is some precisely-timed manoeuvres. It makes the bizarre ritual of English Morris dancing look rather pathetic. Of course, the Black King eventually surrenders and the White King is reunited with his bride. They presumably live happily ever after or, in this case, until the next of the regular tourist performance of the dance.
The musicians then moved from the ‘summer cinema’ enclosure within the city’s fortifications to the nearby St Mark’s Cathedral for the first of two concerts of music by JS Bach from the Croatian Baroque Ensemble, whose director, violinist Laura Vadjon, has been the artistic director of the Festival for the past four years. This first concert featured two cantatas, Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, BWV 56 and Ich habe genug, BWV 82, separated by Bach’s Concerto for Two Harpsichords, strings & continuo in C, BWV 1061. Appropriately for the location, the first cantata made several references to navigation and stormy seas, the latter something that we experienced a couple of days later in a tremendous 4am thunderstorm.
The vocal soloist was the impressive baritone, Krešimir Stražanac. His expressive and communicative singing gave a real sense of telling a story, particularly in the recitatives. Key instrumental contributions came from oboists Stjepan Nodilo and Manuela Maria Mitterer, the former making very effective ornamental additions to Bach’s melodic line, the latter producing some haunting sounds from her oboe da caccia. Continuo cellist Lea Sušanj Lujo also had a prominent role, her well-articulated bass-line providing solid support as well as some virtuosic moments.
The Concerto for Two Harpsichords was played by Aapo Häkkinen and Pavao Mašić, in a strong performance that stressed the busy interplay between the two instruments as they bounced ideas off each other. The central Adagio, played by the harpsichords alone, was particularly effective. The final Fugue starts with the harpsichords alone, before the other instruments join in, one by one. Aapo Häkkinen directed from the harpsichord. He encouraged some impressive playing from the instrumentalists, despite a rather unusual conducting style that included giving the impression of being about to tumble off his seat.
The concert was repeated two days later (2 September) in the open courtyard of the historic Veliki Kastio fortress, Ston. I don’t often get a chance to mention viola players in reviews, but this concert started with a fine example of musical professionalism. During orchestral tuning, a string broke on Hiwote Tadesse’s viola – not a surprising event for gut strings in complicated weather conditions. With exemplary composure, she quietly left the stage to replace the string while the two harpsichordists filled the gap by playing the Adagio from the Harpsichord Concerto.
The second of the two Bach concerts was given on Sunday 1 September in St Mark’s Cathedral, Korčula and repeated (with smaller forces) two days later in the church of the Mary Help of Christians, Orebić. The cleverly conceived programme, Harmonia aetherea, was in the form of a cantata that Bach didn’t write, with a selection of movements from eight of Bach’s finest choral works interspersed with instrumental arrangements of keyboard pieces. Pavao Mašić, who directed from the harpsichord, explained the construction and theme of the selected pieces in his comprehensive programme notes. After the opening arrangement of one of Bach’s keyboard Preludes, we heard extracts from the cantata Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke, BWV 84, with its joyful aria Ich esse mit Freuden mein weniges Brot sung very expressively by soprano Monika Cerovčec. She later gave a fine performance of the similarly joyous Laudamus te from the B Minor Mass. The BWV 84 recitative Im Schweiße meines Angesichts was segued very neatly into the aria Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust from cantata BWV 170, sung by mezzo-soprano Sonja Runje with such beauty that it brought tears to my eyes. Her powerful recitative Die Welt, das Sündenhaus led to the aria Sir jammern much doch with the organ dueting with a flute, the first of several gorgeous contributions by flautist Ana Benić.
One of the highlights of the concert for me was Bach’s extraordinary duet Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten from cantata BWV 78 where the “eager steps” of the disciples are imitated by a wonderfully jazz-like cello riff played with spectacular gusto by the excellent cellist Lea Sušanj Lujo who, as in the first concert, had a very busy time throughout. The sheer joy and excitement of the disciples were expressed brilliantly by Monika Cerovčec and Sonja Runje (Ah! hear how we lift up our voices), not least in their exchanges of the distinctive words – Zu dir. The inventive bounce of Bach’s writing suggested, to me at least, that it should really have been danced as well as sung.
Without wishing to underplay the fine contributions of any of these talented musicians, there is one who warrants special mention – the extraordinary talented Croatian mezzo-soprano Sonja Runje. Her singing, (which also included Erbarme Dich and the recitative and aria Vergiss es ferner nicht / Halleluja, Stärk und Macht), was some of the most beautiful Bach singing I have ever heard. Despite her training and experience as an opera singer with a wide repertoire, she has what, for me, is a perfect ‘early music’ voice. She has developed an enviable ability to control her vibrato to produce an exemplary straight tone, applying subtle vibrato, usually, and quite correctly, only as an ornament, for example at the end of long-held notes. Her singing was wonderfully expressive, with a gorgeously rich tone that is constant throughout a wide range, with some very assured low notes. She is also one of the few singers who is not afraid to open her mouth, to commendable musical effect. She has an extremely compelling stage manner, communicating directly with the audience in her expression of the emotional heart of the music. This was singing that I will remember for a long time.
The concert on Wednesday 4 September was given in St Nicholas Church, Korčula by the extremely impressive Ensemble Odyssee, based in Amsterdam (not Denmark, as stated in the programme). They gave the first part of a longer concert In Freundschaft with the second part given the following day in the parish church of St. Joseph, Vela Luka, on the far west of the island of Korčula. The four composers featured over the two concerts were all (friendly) applicants for the post of Kappelmeister of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, a competition that Bach eventually won, despite being far from the first choice. They opened with Telemann’s Suite in E minor for winds & orchestra (TWV 55:e2), followed by Bach’s D minor Violin Concerto (BWV 1052R), a reconstruction of the harpsichord concerto BWV 1052.
The violin soloist Eva Saladin edited this reconstruction, extending the violin’s range higher than usual. Her spectacular performance was an object lesson in how to play the baroque violin, her sophisticated technique (using the short bow strokes, delicate touch and the precise arrival on notes (without portamento) that is essential for period performance on gut strings) produced a beautifully contoured, delicately shaded and attractively fluid melodic line which she combined with assured virtuosic passages and well thought out cadenzas.
This first concert ended with Bach’s Concert F for solo harpsichord, two recorders & orchestra (BWV 1057), with Andrea Friggi as harpsichord soloist. Unfortunately, he was hidden from at least half the audience (including me) behind the two recorder players, who in this piece generally have a supporting role. Andrea Friggi’s neatly articulated playing was impressive, his clarity of touch making Bach’s complex lines clear.
For their second concert in Vela Luka, (which the programme mistakenly insisted was a repeat of the first), they played the six-movement Ouverture in F for recorder and orchestra by Christoph Graupner and Johann Friedrich Fasch’s Concerto in D minor for oboe and orchestra. The soloists were Anna Stegmann, recorder, and Georg Fritz, oboe. Anna Stegmann’s beautifully eloquent recorder playing was a delight, particularly in some passages that sounded like birdsong from the rafters of the church. Georg Fritz highlighted the almost Rococo mood of the Fasch Concerto.
The concert on Friday 6 September was given in the open-air courtyard of the Arneri Palace in the centre of Korčula town by the Spanish group La Ritirata. Their programme was called Il Spitirillo Brando, combining the Neopolitan legend of the “malicious little demon” that serves to justify human faults and weaknesses, and the late 16th-century dance, also known as the Branle. The four-strong group featured Tamar Lalo, recorder, Josetxu Obregón, cello and direction, Ignacio Prego, harpsichord, and Daniel Garay, percussion. Their programme reflected the rich mix of music for entertainment during the period of the Spanish Kingdom of Naples, combining Italian and Spanish idioms. One such composer was Andrea Falconieri, a lute player in the viceregal court, whose attractive little dance pieces formed the nucleus of the programme.
They started with Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli’s Sonata da chiesa: La Castella (Op.3/4), a free fantasy built around a central chaconne. Tamar Lalo’s recorder playing was particularly attractive, her subtle inflections of tone and precise intonation combining with virtuosity. Domenico Gabrielli’s increasingly complex Ricercare VI was the first of several cello solos – and, indeed, is also one of the first known solo cello pieces. It was segued into Giuseppe Maria Jacchini’s Sonata per Camera, Op.1/8. Anothercello solo was Giovanni Battista Vitali’s Toccata y bergamasca per la lettera B, the harpsichord joining in after the arpeggios of the opening Toccata. Ignacio Prego’s harpsichord solos were the Chacona de Flores de Música from the Martin i Coll collection and Cabezón’s Diferencias sobre el Canto del Cavallero, which was segued into the Corrente Italiana by Cabanilles, played with commendably clear articulation. Daniel Garay’s occasional percussion contributions were well-judged, never interfering with the other instruments. I liked the rather apt (but not very authentic) addition of a military drumbeat to the Cabezón’s Canto del Cavallero. They repeated the concert the following day in the church of St Peter and Paul in Trpanj on the far side of the Peljesac peninsula.
The concert on Sunday 8 September was in the delightful little church of Gospa od Škoja (Our Lady of the Island), on the nearby island of Vrnik, repeated the following day in the unusually named Church of our Lady of the Snow in Pupnat a few miles west of Korčula on Korčula island. It was given by duo partnership Plaisirs de Musique from the Czech Republic under the title Saint Amour. Marta Kratochvílová, flute, and Jan Čižmář, playing a swan-neck lute & baroque guitar, gave a beautifully informal programme of music from the regions of Silesia, Bohemia, Moravia and Poland, much of based on music from lute tablatures from the library of the monastery of Grûssau, formally in Silesia, and now Krzeszów in Poland. They opened with the Sonata Secundab by Gottfried Finger, a piece in the multi-sectional stylus phantasticus form concluding with the reassuring tread of a chaconne.
The festival organisers had requested pieces by the Italian composer Tomaso Cecchini, who was active in Croatia where he held posts in the cathedrals of Split and Hvar. Two of his little Sonatas surrounded an anonymous Suite, apparently composed for the entertainment of the monk, that contained the title piece, Saint Amours. A Telemann Suite followed and then a Suite by a Bohemian aristocrat, Jan Antonín Losy, a heredity Count and a senior figure in the court of the Hapsburg Holy Roman Empire in Prague. After a Duo for lute and flute by Sylvius Leopold Weiss (the key contributor to the lute repertoire of the region) the concert ended with a piece by the Holy Roman Emperor himself, Leopold I and his Ciaconna in G – a pretty accomplished piece for somebody who probably had several other things on his mind. Their encore at their second concert, in Our Lady of the Snow, Pupnat, was a wonderfully exotic piece from an indigenous composer from Peru. Their playing and the obvious sense of communication between them and with the audience was lovely to observe.
The final concert of my stay was given (on Tuesday 10 September) in the sumptuously decorated little church of All Saints, the home of several Korčula confraternities and some impressive art and architectural features. It was given by the trio Musica Batavia from the Netherlands. It had the title of Making Connections, a reference to the wide-ranging travels and influences of musicians throughout the ages – something that is as important for young Croatian musicians today as it was for musicians in the 16th to 18th centuries.
Alongside pieces by Dietrich Becker, William Babell, Handel, Matteis, Telemann and William de Fesch, they also included flute and violin Sonatas by the Italian Tomaso Cecchini, who had spent much of his musical life not far from Korčula. I did wonder if what seemed to me to be a sense of humour in the Violin Sonata could have been explored a little further. Bert Honig played a range of recorders, from the Renaissance era to a two-keyed recorder for the final two pieces. Mimi Mitchell’s demonstrated a variety of tone colours in her violin playing, while Christina Edelen impressed me with her continuo realisations on harpsichord and organ. I often wonder how many people appreciate that the flurry of notes heard from continuo keyboard players is actually based on a single line of music, everything above the bass notes being improvised (to varying degrees) by the player.
Photos of the concert performers are by Boris Berc for the Korčula Baroque Festival.
Other photos are by ABW, including the random selection of images below, taken in and around Korčula during the festival.