Feature Review – Improvisations: The Early Music Weekend

Written by: Erwin Hösi

“This year’s Early Music Weekend breaks away from the tyranny of the musical score to explore improvisation … from medieval polyphony to Baroque concertos – with some jazz thrown in for good measure…”

Queen Elizabeth Hall & Purcell Room, London

Friday 16-Sunday 18 September 2005

Artistic Director: Tess Knighton

Artists and ensembles taking part included (in order of appearance):

Ensemble Organum


Gustav Leonhardt

Tallis Scholars

James Gilchrist

Elizabeth Kenny


The Dufay Collective

David Owen Norris

Akademie für Alte Musik, Berlin


Improvisation was the theme of this year’s Early Music Weekend at the South Bank Centre, and turned out to be cleverly chosen, as it allowed Artistic Director Tess Knighton to include a wide range of artists performing repertoire ranging from the Codex Calixtinus via Martin Codax, Tallis and the Italian Baroque through to keyboard concertos by Johann Christian Bach. In James Gilchrist and Elizabeth Kenny’s “late night entertainment” the audience even had what is a rare pleasure at an early music festival: the chance to be introduced to a living composer.

In Friday’s introductory talk, Tess Knighton pointed out that the art of improvisation has been part of the Western musical tradition since pre-notational times, when improvising was a helpful technique in memorising quantities of text or theoretical concepts (like the Guidonian hand) that a contemporary brain would find impossible to digest. And in a rare public interview, Marcel Pérès pointed out how all improvisation went back to the technique of memorising and meditating upon the Scriptures. In the medieval sources Pérès studied, the phrases used for ‘improvisation’ were ‘cantus ex tempore’, signifying the ‘feel’ of the moment of reading the Scriptures, and ‘Cantus Super Librum’, a term used for non-notated polyphony. Johannes Tinctoris later distinguished between ‘Res Facta’ and ‘Cantus super Librum’ as different modes of polyphony, with the latter again referring to (the high art of) improvised polyphony.

Ensemble Organum’s concert in the Purcell Room showed just how much expertise Pérès has gained over the decades of his group’s existence in performing exactly this kind of non-notated polyphony. In the elaborately choreographed procession opening the reconstructed Vespers for St James from the Codex Calixtinus, it was satisfying to note that the incredibly deep basso profundo to be heard on Ensemble Organum’s latest CD was not a product of studio technology. The following hour revealed a remarkable formal scope and a winning (though deliberately un-refined) set of male voices that is obviously well-trained in Southern-European/Northern African/Arabic singing and ornamentation. A young tenor’s long and sensual solo in the Responsorium’s Versiculum was particularly mesmerising. The Purcell Room’s dry acoustics may not be ideal for this kind of music, but once one got used to the near-absence of any kind of reverb, the authentic (?) rawness came over most convincingly.

Another guest at the opening talk, Federico Bardazzi, focussed on completely different territory: the works of Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674). The ‘rural’ harmonic and melodic simplicity that Bardazzi finds in Carissimi’s sacred works for him present the oratorios (which Bardazzi’s Ensemble San Felice later went on to perform, semi-staged, in the foyer) as “a meeting point between meditation and theatre”. As so often with semi-staged performances, the question arose regarding costumes and choreography should distract from the relatively predictable musical material. On the other hand, as a teacher Carissimi perpetuated his style in the works of, among others, Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Johann Kaspar Kerll. It was the performance, by two brilliant recorder players (Andrea Carmagnola and Marco Di Manno) with a remarkably varied continuo section, of sonatas by Frescobaldi, Castello and Uccellini that really stole the show. Still, the vocalists gave convincing performances, despite taking time to warm up; the concluding chorus of the “Iudicium Salomonis” was a well-balanced, radiant performance that showed an ensemble with some potential.

Day Two turned the attention to another topic. 2005 was the alleged 500th anniversary of Thomas Tallis’s birth (the actual date cannot be verified). As there are many first-rate ensembles that specialise in English Renaissance repertoire, this was a day of delightful concerts.

The afternoon began in a most intimate and hypnotic way with a stunningly concentrated consort performance by Phantasm. Consort music in a timbral sense already has an atmospheric, contemplative dimension, but the way in which the brilliant musicians of this viol ensemble elaborated the intricately interwoven lines while still following a common rhetoric made this recital one of the highlights of the weekend. The works by Byrd, Ferrabosco, Parsons and Tallis, organised around the doctrine of the Four Temperaments, could not have been presented in a more flattering way.

Following a discussion among Tallis expert John Milson, Timothy Day (Curator of Classical Music Recordings at the British Library) and Peter Phillips (of the Tallis Scholars) about the Tallis revival came the event many would have seen as the climax of the programme: Gustav Leonhardt’s harpsichord recital of works by Tallis, Byrd, Nicholas Strogers, John Bull and Gibbons. Against expectations, the recital took its time to develop. It was not just that Thomas Tallis’s keyboard works are of variable quality, his having been more a master of improvisation as church organist; Leonhardt’s playing appeared overly cautious, as though he were nervous. Malcolm Rose’s beautifully sounding copy of a Lodewijk Theeuwes harpsichord (1579) did not disguise the rigid air of these pieces, which seemed to be more contrapuntal exercises than works intended for performance. In the later parts of the concert, especially in the closing works by Orlando Gibbons, Leonhardt recaptured his real grandeur, ending the recital with some memorable moments. Still, his moderate approach to this music could not be further from that of younger performers like, say, Andreas Staier or Christophe Rousset.

Earlier, the Tallis Scholars had offered the exciting chance for a number of audience members to join them in a rehearsal of “Spem in Alium”, Tallis’s 40-voice magnum opus; the result was a surprisingly good performance, in which all the singers on the over-crowded stage gave their best and only very few faces revealed that they had lost their way.

The following concert by the Tallis Scholars, celebrating the anniversary of their namesake’s birth, was another one of the great events of the weekend. With two performances of “Spem in Alium” bookending the concert, the Tallis Scholars’ gears were set in overwhelming mode. But there were other gems in the programme, like the wonderfully dense five-voice antiphon “Salve intemerata” or the first part of the “Lamentations”. Here the ensemble could be heard performing at itsbest, despite Tessa Bonner’s soprano a little too forward at times.

After this a recital by tenor James Gilchrist and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny that turned the Purcell Room into a snug, candle-lit Elizabethan chamber. Gilchrist’s mellifluous and rhetorically articulate performance was pure delight; his keeping the balance between sophisticated and camp entertainment was most becoming. It was also a relief to find the duo’s approach to Dowland et al. showing an awareness of the ubiquitous image of him as a Romantic, dark genius. Here was a performance that did not avoid “In darkness let me dwell” but did not get trapped in over-indulging in a modern notion of melancholy. Young composer Rachel Stott’s two songs on words by Thomas Campion with their open tonality but clear form underlined this sober yet still-relishing style.

Day three re-introduced the ‘improvisation’ theme by going a bit beyond what Friday may have promised. The concerts of the day went on to show that the topic of improvisation lead directly into the centre of some of the dilemmas of performance practice. In her introduction to (freely improvising) L’Arpeggiata’s concert, Christina Pluhar asked if they really had the right to do this. Indeed, many performers of a generation whose emphasis was on meticulously reconstructing probable performance practices may have felt offended by L’Arpeggiata’s taking early sources only as a starting point and wildly combining these old works with pop music and jazzy improvisation.

The day also went to show that the introduction of print and notation was not as much an anathema to improvisation as was recorded music. In David Owen Norris’s presentation of his recording of early piano concertos, he revealed techniques of improvising cadenzas that have been in use from the introduction of the genre. As he entertainingly pointed out, Mozart notated cadenzas only for those who didn’t have a facility for improvising; it was also common for the pianist to accompany the orchestral part during an entire concerto. With his hilarious lecture style, bordering on musical slapstick at times, Norris would surely be a great candidate for hosting a television programme.

In their concert, Monica Huggett and Sonnerie, with Matthew Halls on fortepiano, introduced such names as Ignác Ruzitska, Antal György Csermák, József Kossovits, János Bihari and Márk Rózsavölgyi. These were all composers of gypsy origin whose works were published in the 18th century, and were known and imitated by composers like Joseph Haydn and Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Haydn’s Piano Trio No.39 in G with its moving ‘Cantabile’ and wild Presto finale ‘all’Ongarese’ gave ample opportunity for Huggett to show off her skills as violinist and also showed, just like Hummel’s Hungarian Dances (Op.23), “how much these composers stole from gypsies”, to quote one of Huggett’s good-humoured addresses to the audience. To pay due tribute, the works of the gypsy composers outnumbered those of their ‘canonic’ colleagues, and hence did not just serve as mere exotica. It turned out that these works had quite a bit of artistry to offer alongside stereotypical folkloristic clichés.

Young ensemble Apollo & Pan’s concert was unluckily placed in the foyer, where the bustling atmosphere made it difficult to concentrate. After sonatas from the Italian Baroque (Merula, Turini and Buonamente) the circle of listeners widened considerably; just before the audience was called into the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the Dufay Collective’s concert, Apollo & Pan got as much applause as it took to give an encore.

The Dufay Collective’s concert was another of those ‘difficult cases’, where personal judgement and taste seem to matter more than sound musicological arguments. The lights went down. Into the darkness some sparse notes from the harp ventured forth, after which ultraviolet light revealed a group of barefooted figures with wild hair and dressed in rumpled whitish garments. A mysterious triangle, reaching to the top of the stage and creating the atmosphere of a sci-fi scenario, half made the viewer wonder what it was supposed to signify. After a dreamy introductory sequence a woman dressed in a similar outfit appeared and sang tunes from Martin Codax’s “Cantigas de amigo”. The Dufay Collective’s rendering of an entertainment that “may well have been heard at the court of Alfonson X El Sabio of Castilo and Leon” (1253-1284) was certainly hypnotic, and in its groovy repetitive rhythms and arabesque ornamentation and instrumentation owed just as much to techno as it did to musicology.

There may be more radical approaches to performing this repertoire and stressing the Moorish influences – like that of the Camerata Mediterranea under Joel Cohen with the Abdelkrim Rais Andalusian Orchestra of Fès and Mohammed Briouel – still, the Dufay Collective’s combination of this approach with a Pink-Floyd-like concert atmosphere quickly found its admirers.

Two more real highlights were to follow: A more traditional orchestral performance, the excellent Akademie für Alte Musik that did just about everything right, and the guilty pleasure of L’Arpeggiata.

The Akademie presented a programme of “Baroque Improvisatons” where the notated text was obviously the result of improvisation. Besides two works on “La Folia” (Vivaldi and Geminiani) there was a heart-stopping rendering of Biber’s Passacaglia in G from the Rosary Sonatas performed by Midori Seiler (who surprised with how much she was at home in this Baroque repertoire), and well-chosen works by Muffat and Corbetta. The latter’s Sinfonia gave cellist Jan Freiheit an opportunity to show off his skills. The furious finale of Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso ended a great concert.

A standing ovation also crowned L’Arpeggiata’s recital with an intensity usually reserved for rock concerts – albeit intermingled by a few distinctive boos. Whether it was Italian jazz singer Lucilla Galeazzi’s own songs, Gianluigi Trovesi’s jazzy clarinet improvisations on works by Monteverdi, Barbara Strozzi, Giovanni Felipe Sances and Santiago de Murcia, or Michelle Claude’s witty percussion solo, or the mediating performance of countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, the audience’s enthusiasm seemed to know no bounds. And it proved a wise decision to invite the audience to take their drinks into the Purcell Room. With the umpteenth encore, Monteverdi’s “Ohime, ch’io cado” performed over a walking bass with a punctuated rhythm, the ‘crossover’ reached its zenith, seeing a mock-duel between Jaroussky (who pretended to be torn between a sombre and a jazzy performance) and Gianluigi Trovesi, with Lucilla Galeazzi stepping between the rivals. There was no answer to Christina Pluhar’s question whether they “had the right to do this”, but the project’s success was undeniable.

As a whole, the South Bank’s Early Music Weekend confirmed this yearly initiative as one of London’s most exciting musical events.

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