Friday, October 28, 2011

Van Swieten Society

On my site I usually only pay attention to discs with music before the 19th century. On rare occasions I have reviewed recordings with 19th-century repertoire. My reviews of live events are also restricted to pre-romantic repertoire. But now and then I do attend concerts with romantic music, on one condition: it has to be performed on period instruments. One ensemble whose concerts I always try to attend is the Van Swieten Society. It once started as Musica Classica, and was founded by Bart van Oort, player of the fortepiano and a former pupil of Malcolm Bilson. In the early days it played mostly music from the classical period. Over the years it has made more and more excursions into later repertoire.

One of the features of the Van Swieten Society is its preference for little-known repertoire and composers who are largely neglected by mainstream performers. Recently I attended a concert which bears witness to that. It was entitled "Violoncello all'Inglese", and its thread was music written or performed in England in which the cello plays an important role. Two pieces were in particular interesting in regard to the role of the cello. In the first part we heard Three Russian Airs, op. 72 by Ferdinand Ries. He was not an English composer and this piece was the result of his stay in Russia. But during his time in London, from 1813 to 1824, it was very popular and frequently performed. The other piece was from the pen of Alfredo Piatti (1822-1901), the most brilliant cellist of his time, who lived in England until shortly before his death. His Serenade in D for two cellos and pianoforte was probably written in the 1870's and must be one of the latest compositions the Van Swieten Society has ever played. Job ter Haar gave brilliant performances of both pieces, with Jan Insinger on the second cello in Piatti. The works by Ries and Piatti are typical showpieces which give the interpreter the opportunity to display his skills. Piatti's piece, by the way, reminded me once again why I dislike music of the second half of the 19th century.

The other pieces on the programme were hardly less curious. The probably least unknown composer - apart from Ries - was George Onslow, a composer of British birth from the early 19th century who spent a large part of his life in France, and therefore claimed by the French as one of them. There is a remarkable interest in his music lately, as a list of recordings shows. In particular his string quintets enjoy growing popularity. One of them, the Quintet in c minor, op. 38, has the nickname 'The Bullet', and graphically describes how Onslow was hit by a bullet during a hunting party. Bart van Oort likes to explain the music to the audience. That is nice, but I wonder whether in this case he shouldn't have given the audience the opportunity to find out for themselves how and when exactly Onslow expressed the moment he was hit and the state of his health afterwards. Now it was explained before the performance, and that took away some of the effects this piece contains. Just assume Haydn would have explained to his audience that they would hear a big bang in his 'Surprise' symphony ...

The fortepiano played a major role in the two remaining works. The concert started with the Quintet in A flat for pianoforte and strings by John Field. A remarkable piece of a lyrical character in just one movement, 'andante con espressione'. And an expressive performance it received. It turned out to be a very fine composition, and would be a great addition to the repertoire of chamber music ensembles of this scoring. The concert ended with a piece by William Sterndale Bennet, who was a major force in the British music scene in the first half of the 19th century. He travelled to Germany where he became friends with Mendelssohn and Schumann. Little of his oeuvre has been recorded; the main recordings regard his five piano concertos. The Sextet in f sharp minor op. 8 is written for pianoforte, two violins, viola, cello and double bass. The latter instrument can be replaced by a second cello, and that was the case in this concert. As Sterndale Bennet was a pianist by profession, and a virtuoso to boot, it comes as no surprise that the keyboard has the main part. But the strings are given fine music too. It received an engaging performance, starting with an 'allegro moderato ma con passione' which was played with passion indeed, followed by a playful scherzo. A lyrical 'andante grazioso' and an 'allegro assai ed energico' brought this work to a close. It was a very pleasant acquaintance with the oeuvre of Sterndale Bennet, and I hope this is not the last time his music is performed by the Van Swieten Society.

Programmes like this give this ensemble its unique place in the music scene. It seems that they hardly ever perform outside the Netherlands, which is quite surprising. Because of their technical and interpretational skills and their creative programming they fully deserve to be part of the international circuit.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


The early music scene is hit by a disease: percussionitis. The symptom is the use of percussion instruments in music where the composer didn't prescribe them. This disease seems contagious, as within a couple of months I have heard at least three discs where the performers have fallen victim to percussionitis. And I wouldn't be surprised if they are not the last.

Being confronted with this disease I have gone back in time and searched in my reviews. I found several other examples from the last five years or so where I noted the same symptoms. Little could I imagine that it would become a serious disease in only a couple of years.

There is no doubt that percussion instruments have been used in Western music since old times. In his book Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance David Munrow devotes a chapter to this subject, and he refers here to a book by James Blades, Percussion Instruments and Their History. Munrow emphasizes that we know very little about how exactly percussion instruments were used. His statement that they were likely used in dance music seems plausible, and I assume that is also the case in later periods in music history. But at the same time he urges to be cautious about using iconography as evidence of percussion being used in sacred music as well.

In the baroque era timpani were almost the only kind of percussion which were added now and then to the orchestra. They were used in operas, for instance by Lully, and in ceremonial and festive music, like settings of the Te Deum. If trumpets were included in the orchestra, timpani were mostly added as well. There is also some large-scale liturgical music, for instance from Austria in the late 17th century, which also has parts for timpani.

The fact that composers did not indicate the use of percussion in their music doesn't totally exclude the possibility that in actual performances percussion instruments were used. Scorings don't always reveal the whole truth. But if performers feel the need to add percussion, they should at least argue why this is plausible. They have to come up with sound arguments, based on historical research. So far I haven't seen such arguments, and mostly the decision to add percussion isn't argued at all.

The most horrible example of misjudged use of percussion is the disc with "Love Songs" by Henry Purcell. It contains mostly extracts from music for the stage, performed by Dorothee Mields and the Lautten Compagney Berlin, directed by Wolfgang Katschner. It is worth quoting Michael Wersen in his liner-notes regarding the performance of the Chaconne from The History of Dioclesian (I use the translation in the booklet): "There is a tradition of composing over a ground bass in England; on the one hand this has long been an opportunity to show off contrapuntal mastery, and on the other hand, from the mid-17th century, folk elements were also integrated into such 'ground' compositions. Wolfgang Katschner's lightly defamiliarized adaption [=adaptation] of this piece on this CD (he uses theorbos in the upper parts instead of recorders, a plucked bass, and enriches the acoustic palette by the addition of drum sounds) emphasizes the adaptability the piece acquired in its theater version between high compositional art and more popular entertainment music". But this has to be considered pure speculation as long as Mr Katschner doesn't come up with reliable historical sources which prove his point or at least give his decisions a certain amount of plausibility. But nothing of the kind is to be found in the liner-notes. I doubt if Mr Katschner has done any historical research into this matter. As long as no evidence is given which supports his decisions his performance can hardly be considered a specimen of 'historically informed performance practice'. 'Historically ill-informed' is more like it.

There are more examples like this. Some years ago I reviewed a recording of the Lachrimae by John Dowland, performed by the Capella de Ministrers. Here percussion is added to the galliards and almands. In a more recent recording of music for viola da gamba all recercadas by Diego Ortiz are performed with additional percussion. And just to mention one example of a recording of much earlier music: a disc with 'woman's songs of love and pain' from the Middle Ages by the ensemble Triphonia also contains quite a number of pieces where percussion is used. In this kind of music we can't rely on the wishes of the composers as they didn't specify any scoring and many of them are anonymous. But the fact that percussion was used in medieval times, as David Munrow indicated, is no justification to use it so often.

The question then is: why are so many performers falling victim to percussionitis?
As I already indicated the issue is mostly not discussed, and therefore any explanation has to be speculative. It seems to me that with the use of percussion performers intend to emphasize the rhythm of a piece. This could also be the explanation of the fact that the use of a guitar in the basso continuo group is equally increasing, and that plucked instruments are frequently played like percussion instruments. The best reason I can think of is that performers want to bring early music closer to a modern audience which is used to popular music in which percussion plays a key role. It is vital in making people go out of their mind. Maybe we have to consider percussionitis as the musical counterpart of political populism.

Ironically, rhythm is vital in early music too, and definitely in baroque music. Here we find dance rhythms everywhere, and that includes sacred music. But does that justify the addition of percussion? Is that really needed to make the audience feel the rhythm? I don't think so. Only recently I attended a recital by Gustav Leonhardt. If there is any artist who has a great sense of rhythm and who can make the audience moving their feet to the rhythm of the music it is Leonhardt. His recordings of other music - be it instrumental or vocal - have the same qualities. No percussion needed.

Is it really unfair to suggest that adding percussion bears witness to the performer's incompetence of giving convincing and compelling accounts of the music as it was written down by the composer? This could explain why the addition of percussion usually doesn't make things any better. The recording with pieces by Ortiz which I mentioned before is a good example. The rhythms are severely underexposed despite the use of percussion.

Rhythm in early music is important. But it shouldn't be in the centre, unless it is real dance music. By frequently adding percussion the music tends to lose its subtlety and its depth. After all, rhythm is a means, not an end in itself. The previously mentioned recording of "Love Songs" by Purcell shows how disastrous the effect of ill-judged adaptations can be. The Affekt of various pieces is largely destroyed by playing for the gallery. And that includes the use of percussion. Modern interpreters better respect the judgement of the composers. They are usually right.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Hans-Leo Hassler: Sacred and secular music

At my site, musica Dei donum, I usually only write about new recordings. As regularly interesting recordings are reissued I use this weblog to bring some of them to your attention. This time it is a set of two discs with music by Hans-Leo Hassler (1564-1612).

Hans-Leo Hassler worked almost his whole life in southern Germany, which in the second half of the 16th century was one of the cultural centres of Europe. He was born in Nuremberg as son of an organist, and had two brothers who also became musicians. They were all trained as organists, and all three were connected for some time with the influential and wealthy Fugger family. Although they were also active as composers only Hans-Leo Hassler has written compositions in almost any genre in vogue at the time. The two discs to be reviewed here give a broad survey of his oeuvre which comprises sacred music in Latin and in German, secular vocal music on German and Italian texts as well as instrumental music.

Hassler received his first music lessons from his father. At the time Leonhard Lechner, pupil of Orlandus Lassus, was archimusicus in Nuremberg. It seems likely he had some influence on the young Hassler, although there is no firm evidence that he ever was Lechner's pupil. In 1584 Hassler went to Venice where he became a pupil of Andrea Gabrieli. He also became acquainted with Giovanni Gabrieli and with Claudio Merulo, one of Italy's greatest organ virtuosos. He didn't stay for long, though, as in 1585 Andrea Gabrieli died and Hassler returned to Germany. In Augsburg he took up the position of Cammerorganist of one of the members of the Fugger family. It is with this family that he was connected almost his entire life. In 1608 he moved to Dresden where he first became chamber organist and then took up the duties of Kapellmeister. Soon he was hit by tuberculosis which caused his death in 1612.

The influence of what Hassler had heard and learned in Venice is noticeable in his music. Several pieces are set for eight voices in two groups, and in his motets for six parts Hassler also makes use of the cori spezzati technique in that he splits the six voices into a high and a low 'choir'. Even in his secular music he makes use of this procedure.

At the end of the 16th century there is a growing amount of text expression. That is clearly noticeable in the music of Orlandus Lassus, and this disc contains various examples of Hassler fitting in with this fashion.

The multireligious landscape in the region where Hassler worked is reflected in his oeuvre which comprises pieces for the Roman Catholic liturgy as well as compositions which are reflecting the liturgical reforms of Martin Luther. The latter aspect comes to the fore in, for instance, Hertzlich lieb hab ich dich, one of the most famous German protestant hymns. The last stanza, 'Ach Herr, laß dein liebe Engelein' was used by Bach at the end of his St John Passion. A Passion hymn turns up where one wouldn't expect it: Mein Gmüth ist mir verwirret was later to be used for the famous text O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden.

The secular part of this recording is equally interesting. There is quite a lot of text expression, and the madrigals by Hassler are often no less expressive than those of his Italian contemporaries. A title like Lustgarten (pleasure garden), as a collection of secular pieces of 1601 was called, suggests light-hearted pieces. The exalted Tantzen und springen certainly belongs to that category, but the above-mentioned Mein Gmüth ist mir verwirret most definitely not: "My mind is all confused, and the cause is a sweet maiden". The Canzonette of 1590 are also less cheerful than one might expect: "I feel - alas! - that I am dying", "I fled through woods, forests and across mountains (...) so as not to feel Cupid's sharp arrows" and "O you who gives me pain".

The variety and consistently excellent quality of Hassler's oeuvre is impressively demonstrated by this recording. The sacred pieces are performed by the vocal ensemble which comprises 20 singers. As the tracklist doesn't give information about which musician participates in the various pieces I can't tell whether they were all involved in every piece. But given the fact that chapels in the south of Germany were mostly not small a performance with more than one voice per part seems plausible. The extensive use of instruments is also justified; they give support to the voices or replace some of them. The ensemble is quite colourful, with recorder, cornett, three sackbuts, two renaissance violins, two viols, violone, lute, theorbo, organ and percussion. They also participate in the secular pieces, which are mostly sung with one voice per part. That is a most sensible decision: these pieces are meant to be sung at home and in social gatherings, and a choir would be inappropriate here. Only the acoustic in the secular repertoire could have been more intimate: the reverberation is a bit too large.

The level of the performances is high: the singing and playing is excellent. The delivery is as good as one can expect in polyphony. Erik Van Nevel has found the right approach to this repertoire in regard to dynamics and articulation: there is less legato singing than is necessary in earlier music. There is also more dynamic gradation and more attention to specific elements in the text, but not so much as to suggest this is a kind of 'baroque' music.

There are only a couple of disappointments in these performances. Nos autem populus ejus is the second part of the motet Jubilate Deo, omnis terra. It would have been better to perform the whole motet, and it should have been mentioned in the booklet that it is only partially performed. The same can be said of the hymn Auß tieffer noth. Likewise the second part of the madrigal Vattene pur crudel has been omitted, again without making mention of it. Difficult to justify is also the Italian pronunciation of Latin in the motets.

But those are very minor blots on a production which deserves the full attention of every lover of renaissance music. The booklet doesn't give recording dates, and as the discs give 2010 as the year of production and copyright one may think these are recent recordings. But a look into the catalogue of my local public library revealed these discs were first released separately by the small Belgian label Eufoda in 1999 and 2000 respectively. That may have been the reason they have never received the attention they most certainly deserve. At that time very few of Hassler's music was available on disc, and unfortunately not much has changed since. This production underlines Hassler's importance and the variety and quality of his output.

Hans-Leo Hassler: Sacred and secular music
Currende/Erik Van Nevel
Recorded 1999 and 2000
Et'cetera - KTC 1409 1409

Sunday, February 6, 2011


Improvisation is an important part of the performance of early music. From the early stages in the development of the historical performance practice interpreters realised that simply playing the notes as they were printed or written down by the composer was not enough. The score was only the starting point of the process of interpretation or even recreation of what the composer had in mind. In this respect they reacted against the traditional performances of early music, in particular those which - in their pursuit of avoiding the romantic distortion of pre-romantic music - aimed at avoiding every personal element and even emotion in the interpretation. Only recently I saw a performance of Bach's B minor Mass under the direction of Karl Richter which was a good illustration of this approach.

The more interpreters were mastering the singing and playing techniques of the 17th and 18th centuries, the more they felt free to add something to their performances. They became more generous in their ornamentation and took more liberties in their treatment of rhythm and tempo. In recent times some performers have gone some steps further in that they are adding their own inventions to the music they play. Some harpsichordists, for instance, add an improvised prelude to a keyboard suite. Others don't hesitate to change notes or create their own version from two existing versions by the composer.

Basically this is a good development. It is important to realise that composers were mostly also the performers of their own compositions. There can be no doubt that someone like Johann Jacob Froberger played his own compositions during his concert tours and it is hardly plausible that he played his suites exactly the same way every time. One should be careful, though. After all, today's interpreters are not at the same footing as the composer. It is the freedom of the composer to do with his own music whatever he likes. That doesn't necessarily mean the modern interpreter has the same right. We also should not forget that the interpretational freedom of the performer in the composers' time was not unlimited. Not seldom composers warned performers of their music not to violate its character. Often they published their compositions in order to 'correct' distorted copies of their works, either printed or circulating in manuscripts.

That doesn't take anything away from the importance of attempts to perform the music of the past with the kind of freedom the composers expected from their interpreters. But we have a problem here which is the effect of a crucial part of today's music-scene: the phenomenon of the recording. Ornamentation and all other sorts of interpretational liberties are supposed to change from one performance to the other. With a recording all improvisational devices are frozen for ever. By playing a disc they are reproduced and repeated ad nauseam which violates their very nature. There is no solution to this problem: a recording in the style of the old days - playing exactly what was written down - is no option anymore, as the audiences are expecting interpreters to do something which sets their performance apart from those of their colleagues. But it proves once again that no disc can ever replace a live performance.

Some musicians take further steps on the path of improvisation. In the Festival Early Music Utrecht of 2008 I attended a concert by the Spanish ensemble More Hispano. I enjoyed the concert and was impressed by the way they used existing material for their improvisations. Recently they released a disc with improvisations under the title "Yr a oydo" (*), meaning "going by heart". In the booklet their approach is described as "an active approach, taking care not to just play the written notes of the pieces but adding another dimension to the interpretation as early performers did. Instead of being passive readers, we play the same game using their same tools and resources, and thus creating new melodic phrases, improvised solos, nuances and agogics, never planned in advance. we spontaneously create a way of punctuating the musician's dialogue on stage, playing with open structures that will resolve unpredictably during the course of the performance on stage or during the recording, taking us on new and unsuspected paths. We express our approach to Renaissance music in a fully improvised performance of virtually all the pieces included in our programs."

Whether recorded improvisations are really improvised - and not prepared beforehand or corrected afterwards - is impossible to verify. We have only the interpreters' word for it. But if they say so, let's trust them. Listening to this disc I was thinking how different a live performance and a recording are, in particular in regard to an approach like this. I don't think I would like to hear this disc a second time, simply because I know what is coming. The surprise which is part of the attraction of an improvisation is gone after two or three listens. But it has also to do with the way the musicians treat the material. They state that they try to "recover the art of improvisation by basing it only on the encoded material in the numerous early publications." This means that they don't opt for distorting the music with contemporary musical elements - and one can only be thankful for that. I am not sure, though, whether they have been completely successful in avoiding it. In particular the playing of the recorder sometimes didn't sound like the 17th century to me.

The programme is a bit one-sided in that all pieces are extraverted, pretty loud and in fast tempi. What about more intimate music? Would their approach work in other kinds of music? They write that "[one] of our aims is to show that this creative aspect, at least in the repertoire of the Renaissance and Baroque, is not only a possibility or a permission, but almost always an inescapable duty of the professional performer." It seems to me this statement is hardly tenable: the approach may work in the Spanish or Italian secular repertoire as recorded on this disc, it would be completely wrong in, for instance, German sacred music of the 17th century. Even here some improvisations may be in the style of the 17th century, but that in itself doesn't make them historically plausible. The most striking example is the last track, Ciaconna, in which elements from Monteverdi's madrigal Zefiro torna and his motet Laudate Dominum are mixed, even textually. There seems to me no justification for this whatsoever. It has more to do with the preferences of the performers than what is historically justifiable.

So this disc raises many questions, which in itself is not a bad thing. But for me it underlines that improvisation may be an "inescapable duty" of modern performers, it does matter how they treat this subject. It is easy to go overboard, and I feel that is what has happened here.

(*) Yr a oydo - More Hispano (Carpe Diem CD-16279)