St John’s, Smith Square • St Gabriel’s Warwick Square • Westminster Abbey

Gustav Leonhardt • Philippe Herreweghe • Cantus Cölln • The English Concert • Hille Perl • Choir of Westminster Abbey • Mahan Esfahani • Robin Blaze • Theatre of the Ayre • Elizabeth Kenny • Retrospect Ensemble • Rachel Podger • Ensemble Inégal • Ensemble Caprice

The Baroque musical scene never ceases to offer different viewpoints and new discoveries, many generated by the vigorous cultural cross-currents of the 17th and 18th centuries. After last year’s emphasis on Italy, this year’s Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music takes a tour of Central Europe, from the Hanseatic trading towns of the Baltic coast through the courts and cities of Germany, Poland, Bohemia and Austria, to finish up by the waters of the Venetian lagoon.

As Lindsay Kemp, the festival’s director since 2007 explains: “There is no focus on a single country in this year’s festival as there has been in the previous two, but the concerts do follow a corridor through Central Europe from North to South. They feature masters like Bach, Telemann, Buxtehude, Biber and Vivaldi, but also some virtually unknown composers and the music of Eastern-European gypsies. The Hanseatic connection is explicit in the festival’s very name and there were ‘trade routes’ in the musical world too … Composers of Northern Europe looked to Italy for inspiration – the Saxon-born Schütz studied with Gabrieli, for instance – while the Bohemian-born Zelenka made his career in Dresden. This year’s festival will give audiences an opportunity to go on their own voyage of discovery: they can make the acquaintance of composers like Jan Josef Ignác Brentner, a Bohemian who died in his hometown of Dobřany, but who also worked in Prague, and Mikołay Zieleński, the foremost Polish composer of the early Baroque. The Baroque period was, after all, quite a highpoint in Poland’s history.”

Authentic performance in every sense can be expected from Ensemble Inégal, a Prague-based group which will make its festival (and UK) debut under its director Adam Viktora and in the company of soprano Gabriela Eibenová in repertoire by Zelenka, Brentner and Bach. The responsibility for introducing sacred music by the Polish Baroque masters lies with a British group – the Retrospect Ensemble under its director Matthew Halls – but the musicians’ credentials in this repertoire are immaculate, since they have performed Polish music in Poland itself.

The ever-dynamic Georg Philipp Telemann – whose career focused on the Hanseatic city of Hamburg – spent time in Poland, where his imagination was captured by the verve and colour of local folk musicians. “In only a week,” he wrote, “a composer could be inspired for an entire lifetime.” Evidence of this inspiration is provided by ‘Telemann and the Gypsies’, a programme performed by another ensemble making its UK debut at the festival – the Montreal-based Ensemble Caprice under director Matthias Maute. They combine folk-flavoured works by Telemann (including the concerto for recorder and flute, with its rollicking final movement) with elaborations on genuine gypsy tunes notated in the 18th century. As Lindsay Kemp wrote in his Gramophone review of Ensemble Caprice’s CD of this repertoire, which first alerted him to their talents: “… Difficult to tell where gypsies stop and Telemann starts. Both will make you want to get up and dance around the room until the neighbours start banging on the wall … Utterly irresistible.”

Making a festival debut at the age of 82 is one of the great names in historically informed performance: Gustav Leonhardt. The legendary Dutch harpsichordist – whose students have included Bob van Asperen, Christopher Hogwood, Richard Egarr, Ton Koopman, Christophe Rousset and Andreas Staier – is described by Lindsay Kemp as “one of the great figures of Baroque music, an inspirational musician over the past 50 years”. Leonhardt’s recital will comprise works by keyboard masters of Northern Germany – Bach, Böhm, Buxtehude, Reincken and Weckmann – and will take place in St Gabriel’s, Warwick Square in Pimlico, an additional, more intimate venue for the festival, which offers an acoustic of ideal clarity for a harpsichord recital.

Still in his mid-twenties is another high-profile harpsichordist, Mahan Esfahani, a former member of the BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists scheme. He plays and directs a programme entitled ‘Hamburg – Queen of Cities’ in the company of The English Concert, violinist Nadja Zwiener and flautist Lisa Beznosiuk. Handel opens the programme, Bach closes it, and between them come Reincken, Telemann (a Polish-flavoured concerto) and Becker.

If The English Concert is one of the longest-established UK ensembles of its type, Theatre of the Ayre is a relatively new force, which first took shape in 2007-8. Its members, though, are well-respected names in the field of Baroque music: lutenist Elizabeth Kenny is a proponent of collective improvisation, and, in an all-German programme, she here collaborates with violinists Rachel Podger and Clare Salaman, gamba-player Alison McGillivray and harpsichordist/organist James Johnstone. Singing with them is counter-tenor Robin Blaze and they explore songs, cantatas and instrumental music by Schütz, Buxtehude, Krieger, Schmelzer and Telemann.

JS Bach once famously walked 200 miles to hear Buxtehude play, and, as Lindsay Kemp points out, the German-Danish composer “tends to be seen as Bach’s precursor, but he was a major composer in own right and his music, rich in depth and nobility, is gaining noticeably in popularity.” Kemp has paraphrased Beethoven’s famous dedication on the Missa Solemnis for the title of an all-Buxtehude concert by Cantus Cölln under Konrad Junghänel, returning to the Lufthansa Festival for the first time since 1994. ‘From the Heart … to the Heart’ presents the cantata ‘Herzlich lieb hab’ ich dich, o Herr’ and the cycle of seven Passiontide cantatas Membra Jesu nostri; it reflects upon seven parts of Christ’s body, one of them being the heart.

Bach himself merits two programmes entirely to himself. Opening the festival is a performance of the B Minor Mass, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe (another distinguished musician who came under the influence of Gustav Leonhardt early in his career), who returns after his festival debut in 2008. Collegium Vocale Gent will be joined by the German soprano Dorothee Mields, the Czech soprano Hana Blažiková, the French counter-tenor Damien Guillon, the British tenor Thomas Hobbs and the Dutch bass Peter Kooij. “It’s a few years since the B Minor Mass was last heard at the festival,” says Kemp. “Herreweghe, who is one of the world’s great Bach interpreters, has said that he finds St John’s, Smith Square a wonderful venue for choral music and, working with a small choir and orchestra, he can be relied upon for a beautifully judged and loving performance that touches the heart.”

Just three performers are involved in the next all-Bach concert a week later: Hille Perl, described by Kemp as an “inspirational player of the viola da gamba”. She hails from another North German Hanseatic city, Bremen, and is joined by Lee Santana on theorbo and harpsichordist Patrick Ayrton in a programme of sonatas, suites and the dazzling Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue.

Fittingly, Bach is also the subject of this year’s Lufthansa Lecture at St John’s, Smith Square. Laurence Dreyfus, Professor of Music at Oxford University and also Director of the viol consort Phantasm, speaks on ‘Bach the Subversive’, who, so he argues, contravened conventional 18th-century ideas as he invoked the power of music as a higher authority.

As the festival moves south towards Italy, it reaches Salzburg and music written by the Bohemian-born Heinrich Ignaz von Biber for the Austrian city’s cathedral. Its splendidly resonant acoustic is matched by Westminster Abbey’s, the venue for a concert by the Choir of Westminster Abbey, conducted by James O’Donnell (Organist and Master of the Choristers) and accompanied by St James’s Baroque. Biber’s spaciously conceived Requiem in A major will be interleaved with psalm settings by Schütz and instrumental sonatas by Antonio Bertali (born in Verona, but active in Vienna) and Biber himself.

Biber and Bertali feature again on the brilliant and adventurous programme of violinist Enrico Gatti and harpsichordist/organist Fabio Ciofini, along with the German Johan Schop, the Englishman William Brade, and the Italians Marco Uccellini and Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli. Lindsay Kemp sees Gatti as “belonging to the vanguard of Italy’s Baroque violinists – he is a probing and serious musician whose playing exudes a classical beauty.”

Italy is decisively reached in the final programme of the festival, ‘From Brescia to Venice’. The concert is devoted to solo, double and triple concertos by Vivaldi and his Northern Italian forerunners and contemporaries – Albinoni, Marino and the brothers Giulio and Luigi Taglietti. Last year’s Lufthansa Festival ended with works by the Rome-based Arcangelo Corelli, a master of the large-scale concerto grosso; this year, Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca – a group founded in 1983 and based in Treviso, not far from Venice – makes its UK debut, playing, as Kemp says "one to a part, with vivacity, lightness and a quick wit”.

 

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