Regensburg: Tage Alter Musik 2018

Tage Alter Musik Regensburg
18-21 May 2018

Seventeen concerts of early music in just four days is the promise of the Regensburg Tage Alter Musik festival. It is held annually over the Pentecost/Whitsun weekend, alongside non-musical Regensburg celebrations, including a beer festival and fairground that brings the local youth out in their distinctive Bavarian outfits. Tage Alter Musik takes place within the architectural and historic delights of this beautiful city on the Danube – the entire city centre is a World Heritage site. Venues for the concerts include austere Gothic, glittering Baroque/Rococo, and the historic Reichssaal in the Altes Rathaus, for centuries the permanent seat of the Parliament of the Holy Roman Empire. The weekend runs from Friday evening, with two concerts, followed by five concerts on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, the latter including a concert that started at 00:15 in the morning!


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Innsbruck Festival of Early Music: 2016

Innsbrucker Festwochen der Alten Musik
16-19 August 2016

The Innsbruck Festival of Early Music celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, although its roots go back a further 14 years or so. After some preliminary events, the festival proper ran for the last two weeks in August. It usually features three fully staged operas, although this year the third of them was reduced to a one-night concert performance of the Ruhrtriennale festival’s production of Gluck’s Alceste, conducted by René Jacobs who until 2009 was artistic director of the Innsbrucker Festwochen and, incidentally, the singer at the first concert of the first festival on 24 August 1976.

Rather surprisingly, given the anniversary nature of this year’s festival, the theme was ‘Tragicommedia’ although the events that I saw were rather more ‘commedia’ than ‘tragic’. As with last year, I was unfortunately only able to attend Continue reading

Barokksolistene: The Image of Melancholy

The Image of Melancholy
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 20 September 2015

The Norwegian group Barokksolistene make a point of ‘pushing boundaries’ with their occasionally curious mixture of Norwegian folk music, early music and electronic jiggery-pokery, played on period string instruments. They brought this combination to the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for a programme based on their recent CD, The Image of Melancholy. The electronic jiggery-pokery opened the show with ambient background sounds whilst two of the Globe’s candle-lighters slowly lit the 48 candles on the six central candelabra, seemingly designed specifically to drip molten wax on to the performers below.  As the background electronics began to merge with an off-stage violin sound, the eight musicians (an enlarged string quartet, plus archlute and what was described as an organ) entered the stage one by one and sat in a circle, as if waiting for a group therapy session. It was clear from the title that this evening was unlikely to be a bundle of fun, but I wasn’t quite prepared for it actually turned out to be.

The thing that was ‘described as an organ’ turned out to be one of those little hand-pumped squeeze-box reed organs usually to be found in Indian ashrams, with what looked like a tiny midi keyboard sitting on top, linked to a laptop. I originally wondered if all the electronic sounds were coming via the latter combination, but it turned out that there was somebody sitting in the gallery producing ‘soundscapes’. By and large, these consisted of the ambience background sounds we had already heard, reminiscent of Brian Eno’s early pieces, plus some very electronic-sounding organ tones of the type used in late 1960’s alternative rock groups. Very few of the pieces we heard were without some sort of background sound like this, whether by the likes of Holborne, Dowland, Gibbons or Byrd or obscure (at least to me) Norwegian folk melodies.

Staging is key to Barokksolistene’s performances, and much thought had gone into this, with on and off stage comings and goings including, at one stage, a bizarre dance given by the group’s leader Bjarte Eike, out of sight of most of the audience behind the central door at the back of the stage. His rocking back and forth on his own in the dark reminded me of scenes from The Wicker Man. This came as the culmination of an extended passage of what I initially thought was tuning up (and still might have been), but which then morphed into this rather ritualistic scene. Eike sees himself as very much the centre of attention, visually and aurally, and despite the mood of a particular piece, was often to be found standing in the middle of the sitting circle. Not surprisingly, the concert ended with an extended violin solo with Eike standing at the front of the gallery to the accompaniment of phase-shifting ambient sound and the archlute while the candelabra rose and fell, seemingly randomly. There was a large and enthusiastic crowd of friends and family whose whooping and yelling at the end of the concert seemed slightly out of keeping given the subject matter of the evening’s concert and, particularly, the last piece, a lament on the death of the composer’s wife. But perhaps they do things differently in Norway – judging by the encores, Norwegian weddings have more than a touch of melancholia to them.

The highlight was the singing of soprano Berit Norbakken Solset (left), both in the folk songs and the early pieces, notably in Buxtehude’s bittersweet lament for his father, the Klag-Lied, and in the equally expressive Byrd ‘Ye sacred muses’, a lament on the death of Tallis with the mournful phrase “Tallis is dead, and music dies”. Instrumentally the finest sounds came from strings in the early pieces, producing a muted tone quite close to that of the viol consort which would have almost certainly been the preferred accompaniment to singers of the time. I am not sure what the likes of Dowland or Holborn would have made of the frequent foot-tapping from one of the players, but it seemed more of a performance tic than relating to any sense of rhythmic enhancement. The foot-tapping turned into foot-stomping from Bjarte Eike during some of the livelier Norwegian contributions and early English dance pieces.

Barokksolistene’s describe their take on early music as treating it as “just old pop music”. I did wonder whether the rather new-age sonic background to much of this music gave it the feel of ‘old pop music’, but from around 50 years ago.