Schabernack

Schabernack: A treasure trove of musical jokes
Les Passions de l’Ame, Meret Lüthi
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. 88985415492. 56’46

Music by Fux, Schmeltzer, Biber, and Walther

Schabernack - A Treasure Trove of Musical Jokes
Schabernack 
translates as ‘prank, practical joke, hoax or shenanigans’, and the underlying theme of this CD by the impressive group Les Passions de l’Ame emphasises that aspect of the musical world of the Austrian and Hungarian Empires during the Baroque period.  The CD cover promises “Characters from the commedia dell’arte, playful birds, an astonishing virtuosity and a colourful instrumentation – the vivid imagination in late 17th century Austrian-German instrumental music loves to surprise”. But humour is only part of the inspiration for this recording. At the time, these Hapsburg domains were part of the defence of Europe from attacks from the east by the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman influence was spreading into Viennese life and music, with Turkish, or Janissary, music and instruments becoming part of the musical language of the time. Continue reading

London Festival of Baroque Music

‘Baroque at the Edge: pushing the boundaries’
London Festival of Baroque Music
St John’s, Smith Square & Westminster Abbey
12-20 May 2017

IMG_20170515_091152885.jpgAfter reforming, renaming, and regrowing itself from the long-running Lufthansa Festival, the London Festival of Baroque Music has become, phoenix-like, one of the most important early music festivals in London. Under the banner of ‘Baroque at the Edge: pushing the boundaries‘, this year’s LFBM used the music of Monteverdi and Telemann, from either end of the Baroque (and both with anniversaries this year) to explore ‘some of the chronological, geographical and stylistic peripheries of Baroque Music’. With one exception, all the concerts were held in the Baroque splendour of St John’s, Smith Square. Continue reading

Die Tageszeiten – Les Passions de l’Ame & Solomon’s Knot

Bach & Telemann’s Die Tageszeiten
L
es Passions de l’Ame, Meret Lüthi, Artistic Director
Solomon’s Knot, Jonathan Sells, Artistic Director
St George’s, Hanover Square.  17 March 2015

JS Bach: Orchestral Suite No 3 in D, Singet dem Herrn; GP Telemann: Cantata Cycle: Die Tageszeiten TWV20:39

The latter years of a composer’s life frequently see reflections on earlier times and a reversion to earlier compositional styles. But Telemann, one of the most prolific composers of the Baroque era, took the opportunity to take a peek into the musical future with his rarely performed cycle of four cantatas, Die Tageszeiten (Times of the Day), It was written in 1755 at the time when Telemann’s composing output was in decline and shows several musical insights into the forthcoming classical era. This was a difficult period in Telemann’s life – his eldest son was dead, leaving him to care for his grandson alongside his own declining eyesight and health. Although generally described as a ‘cantata cycle’, it has something of the feel of a fledgling oratorio to it, not least in its combination of elements of traditional sacred cantata and opera, both genres that Telemann had excelled in during his time in Hamburg. This performance, part of the London Handel Festival, brought together the Bern-based orchestra Les Passions de l’Ame, led by violinist Meret Lüthi, and the eight singers of Solomon’s Knot, directed by Jonathan Sells, who also sang bass.

Each of the four sections is in the same format (Aria – Recitative – Aria – Chorus), reflecting morning, midday, evening and night, and sung respectively by soprano, alto, tenor and bass – in this performance each voice type shared by two singers. Having a different soloist for the second, more reflective and sacred part of the second aria in each section emphasised the text’s link with the passing of life’s stages and the life of the Christian Soul. As if to emphasis this point, the last example was sung from the pulpit.

It was clear from the start that this was rather different to Telemann’s usual style, the opening Sinfonie seeming to switch style from Wagner to Vivaldi in just a few bars, linked by a nimble little viola figure.  The instrumental colour and texture that Telemann drew from his accompaniment continued to fascinate, another example being the halos of strings depicting first the shimmering morning stars and, later, the dew rising from an evening alpine meadow. A noisy brook murmured, the west wind swayed branches, bees raided the flowers with constant buzzing, and the death bell tolled, all meticulously reflected in Telemann’s score.

One of the delights of the score is Telemann’s use of colloquial descriptions of tempo and mood, for example noting the slow movement of the opening Sinfonie as “Dallying and dainty” and the second evening Aria as “Drowsily”. Each section uses a specific instrumental colour, most notably a viola da gamba for midday, played exquisitely by Heidi Gröger. Zoe Matthews provided the bassoon’s depiction of night.

During the first half on the evening, the two groups had performed separately, Les Passions de l’Ame giving an inventive and inspirational performance of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No 3 in D, the Ouverture being not too fast, and the ever-popular Air being not too slow, with a particularly delicate reading of the melody by Meret Lüthi.  Solomon’s Knot then gave a stunning performance of Bach’s motet Singet dem Herrn, the eight singers producing a rich timbre that suited both the madrigalian intensity and joyful bounce of Bach’s varied textures. As with Die Tageszeiten, they all sang from memory, creating an ideal connection with the audience. They all took solo roles in the latter piece, most impressive being soprano Zoë Brown and counter-tenor Michal Czerniawski.

This was an excellent performance by Les Passions de l’Ame and Solomon’s Knot, both individually and together. I hope this partnership will continue.

‘Bewitched’

Bewitched
Les Passions de l’Ame, Robin Johannsen, Meret Lüthi.
Deutsche harmonia mundi / Sony Music 88843040882.  60’06.
Corelli La Follia; Geminiani ‘The Enchanted Forest’; Handel Armida abbandonata.

Bewitched
I praised the début CD (‘Spicy’, Deutsche harmonia mundi  88883748742) from the Swiss violinist Meret Lüthi and her Bern-based period-instrument orchestra, Les Passions de l’Ame in my review in Early Music Review (February 2014).  I am equally impressed with their second CD.  As with ‘Spicy’ they have produced an imaginative programme, in this case combining two pieces linked to the story of the crusader Rinaldo and his doomed love affair with the sorceress Armida, as told by Torquato Tasso in his La Gerusalemme Liberata.  After the opening salvo of Corelli’s La Follia variations, intended to represent the wildly contrasted emotions of Armida, we hear the first part of Francesco Geminiani’s orchestral suite ‘The Enchanted Forest’ (La Foresta Incantata), incidental music written for a 1754 pantomime ballet in the Grand Théâtre du Palais de Tuileries in Paris based on Tasso’s story. We do not know how the music would have been performed in the original production, as all that survives is this two-part suite, a collection of dance-like pieces of varying length and mood.

After the first part of the Enchanted Forest (in d minor), we hear Handel’s c1708 take on the story, the dramatic secular cantata Armida abbandonata (Dietro l’orme fugaci, HWV 105) for solo soprano, sung by the American soprano Robin Johannsen. I was impressed by Robin Johannsen when I first heard her in Hasse’s Romolo ed Ersilia at the 2011 Innsbrucker Festwochen der Alten Musik. Her singing is beautifully clear and focused, with a sensitively honed vocal timbre and an effective use of ornaments and da capo elaborations and the occasional use of a very gentle vibrato to colour the notes. She captures the contrasting moods of Handel’s exquisite cantata to perfection.  The opening accompagnato is interesting for having the continuo accompaniment provided by the solo violin alone, played by the director of Les Passions de l’Ame, Meret Lüthi.

We then return to the D major second part of The Enchanted Forest, the sensuous and subdued opening very effectively continuing the desolate mood of the Siciliana at the end of Armida abbandonat, before the full orchestra, with trumpet and horns blazing, takes overThe central part of the second half is a dramatic multi-section piece that could be a mini-opera in its own right. The playing of the 19 musicians of Les Passions de l’Ame is excellent, and is combined with sensitive continuo accompaniment to the Handel.  Merit Lüthi directs from the violin with an impressively light touch, bringing out both the Italian and French influences in Geminiani’s music.  At the time, Charles Burney thought he was too French, and the French thought he was too Italian! Today we appreciate the benefits of both musical styles.

You can hear extracts on the Les Passions de l’Ame website at http://lespassions.ch/cms/en/discography

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/03/24/bewitched-robin-johannsen-les-passions-de-lame-meret-luthi/]