Laus Polyphoniae – Polyphony of life

Laus Polyphoniae – Polyphony of life
19-23 August 2022

After a three-year Covid-induced hiatus when Laus Polyphoniae ran a much-reduced series of live and online events, the 2022 Festival restored the postponed 2020 edition, under the title Polyphony of life. As usual, the festival was run by AMUZ (Flanders Festival Antwerp) in conjunction with the Alamire Foundation, the study centre for music in the Low Countries and part of KU (Katholieke Universiteit) Leuven. As the name implies, Laus Polyphoniae is devoted to the music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance when polyphony was paramount.

The opening concert was in St.-Pauluskerk, one of Antwerp’s most impressive historic churches, and was given by Festival regulars, the Contrapunctus & Choir of The Queen’s College, Oxford under Owen Rees, with their programme of music by John Taverner (c1490-1545) centred on his Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas. The nine professional singers of Contrapunctus were joined by around 34 students from The Queen’s College, Oxford, based on their usual core Chapel choir. The size of the combined choirs matched that of Cardinal Wolsey whose Cardinal College (now Christ Church College) in Oxford could well have been a venue for this monumental mass setting. This was an outstanding performance, with exquisitely pure tone and intonation from the two choirs as the texture expanded from two intricate voices to the full consort. The student singers were probably at their very best. Most would have studied for at least a year before this vacation-time concert. Whatever quality of voices these students arrived with at the start of their student life, they have been moulded into a perfect ‘early music’ choir. Owen Rees’s direction was exemplary, sitting comfortably in that sensible place between the conducting extremes of academic detachment or self-aggrandizement. The final piece was Taverner’s Ave Maria, complete with the three bell tinkles stipulated by Wolsey for performances at Cardinal College.

The Saturday daytime was taken up by the series of six excellent concerts of the International Young Artists Presentation (IYAP) reviewed separately here.

The Saturday evening concert was given in St.-Andrieskerk by Cappella Pratensis, Alamire & Oltremontano Antwerpen. Their concert reflected the legendary 1520 Field of the Cloth of Gold summit between Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France which aimed to strengthen the bond of friendship between the two countries. For this concert, choirs from England (Alamire) and France (Cappella Pratensis) were aided by the two neutral instrumentalists of Oltremontano Antwerpen. They reflected the two cultures with music by their respective composers including Robert Fayrfax and Walter Lambe on the English side and Jean Mouton and Philippe Verdelot for the French, making up a complete mass setting by the different composers. The comparison between the two sets of composers was interesting, with the English composers having more contrasts between high and low voices, passages of homophony and the use of thirds while the French had a generally more coherent four-part structure with more open fifths. Each choir entered the central stage separately from opposite corners of the church, only combining at the end in Longueval’s Benedicat nos imperialis maiestas. The French sang grouped around an impressive copy of a choir book on an elaborate music desk, while the English sang from printed editions and standard-issue metal music stands. Organist Wim Diepenhorst provided impressive semi-improvised music on the distinctive Walter Chinaglia Gothic organ, although the music did sound a little later in style than the very few examples that we know from around 1520.

The first of two Sunday evening concerts was given in the former church of St Augustine, now the concert hall of AMUZ. It was given by InAlto & Cappella Mariana with their programme Popularis anni iubilus focussed on the music of Carolus Luython (1557-1620) at the Imperial Court in Prague around 1600. The Antwerp-born Luython was court composer for Emperor Rudolf II. His Popularis anni iubilus was a collection of motets dedicated to Rudolf’s brother, Archduke Ernest. It was intended for New Year celebrations and includes reference to the virtues of the emperor and the start of the new earthly and celestial year. Known to some organists, if at all, for his immensely long organ pieces, his vocal music is not well known, so this was an interesting opportunity to learn more about his music alongside some of his contemporaries, including Lassus, Goswinnius, and Zucchini. The stage movements were rather complicated between the six instrumentalists of InAlto and the seven singers of Cappella Mariana. The Cappella Mariana director conducted throughout from within the ensemble, which I found distracting and unnecessary. Pierre Gallon played an Italian-style organ for the entire concert, accompanying both groups and playing two of Luython tricky organ pieces. He deserved a great deal more acknowledgement than he got from the two directors.

A late-night event in the famous Rubenshuis featured the duo Musicke & Mirth (Jane Achtman & Irene Klein) and their concert of Counterpoint on two lyra viols. The flat fingerboard of the lyra viol made it possible to play chords, and it was therefore usually used to accompany laments and recitatives. But this concert revealed the enormous depth of sound that two such instruments could produce. They played contrasting pieces from Ford and Ferrabosco on their lyra viols, and pieces from the larger ‘normal’ viol by Hume, Jenkins and Simpson. A delightful way to spend a late evening.

The Monday (22 August) lunchtime concert was given by two previous contributors to the International Young Artist Presentation (IYAP), B-Five & InVocare with a programme of music by William Byrd (c1540-1623). They divided their Labyrinth of Life programme into three parts, representing Belief, Love and Grief. The viol consort B-Five played Byrd’s five five-part settings of the In Nomine, the second set introduced by the extract from Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas (heard in the Friday concert) that the many In Nomine’s were based on. It would have been a bit more logical to have done this before any of the In Nomine’s were played. I particularly liked the singing of soprano Charlotte Nachtsheim in Susanna fair, amongst others. I would have changed the order of the three sections so that it finished with Love. The grief-laden last sequence left me unsure whether to clap or cry.

The first of the two evening concerts on Monday was given in the St.-Pauluskerk by festival favourites Stile Antico. Their programme In a strange Land – Elizabethan Composers in exile, reflected the difficult time that Catholics had during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Several Catholic composers, including Peter Philips, Richard Dering and John Dowland, left the country. Others, including William Byrd and Robert White, stayed faithful to their homeland and expressed their inner, spiritual exile with divine spiritual music. Pieces by these composers were framed by two parts of White’s Lamentations in a well-planned sequence. The music ranged in mood from the ebullient Philips’ Regina caeli and Byrd’s Haec dies to Tallis’s more subdued In ieiunio et fletu. Standing in a circle in the centre of the audience on all four sides, and singing from memory, their performance led to a well-deserved standing ovation.

The late-night concert was a curious affair, not least in lasting from 10:15 until just before midnight. Billed as a ‘Slow Listening Concert’ and given the title of Tempus fugit, it featured an overly-choreographed deconstruction of Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa prolationum, with the four singers of L’Ultima Parola unravelling the music by singing each section of the Mass in separate parts and then combining them. A spoken commentary, in Dutch, from a radio presenter apparently included old and new texts on the philosophy of life. A fascinating idea for Dutch speakers, but a rather too slow an evening for me. An event like this really needed visuals and a scrolling score to explain the complex canonic machinations of Ockeghem’s piece. The singing, however, was excellent.

Tuesday’s lunchtime concert (my last of the Festival) was given in AMUZ by Le Miroir de Musique with their programme La fleur de biaulté and music by the Brabant polyphonist Giovanni Battista Martini (Johannes Martini, c1435-1497). He was a member of the Sforza family chapel in Milan alongside other Low Country composers, including Compère. He composed masses, motets, psalms, hymns and a few secular songs including chansons. It opened with a lengthy bagpipe solo which seemed a little out of place when the rest of the concert had unfolded. The vocal and instrumental music reflected a range of late Renaissance styles and included an impressive Magnificat that alternated chant and choral verses, the latter building in tension verse by verse. The Fortuna d’un gran tempo was basically homophonic but with distinctive movement within the parts. An extended Credo from the Missa Ma bouche rit contrasted 2, 3 and 4-part singing, again with an impressive build-up of tension. Quite why a single member of the audience decided to try, unsuccessfully, to start applause after the Credo is beyond me. I wonder if they were the same person who did something similar during an equally inappropriate earlier Mass setting? The singing was impressive, although there was a distinct difference between the two mezzo-sopranos, with Tessa Roos having by far the most appropriate clarity and purity of tone voice for this period of music.

The festival continued until Sunday, 28 August.
Next year’s Laus Polyphoniae is from 18-27 August 2023.
Photos by ABW