Early Music 2012 From the ivory tower into the contemporary limelight

The days of the museification and ivory tower isolation of the early music scene in Germany are gone for good. Sabine Fallenstein recaps some of the many noteworthy events, concerts and stage productions in 2012.

Barrie Kosky’s production of Monteverdi’s „Orfeo“ at the Komische Oper in Berlin Barrie Kosky’s production of Monteverdi’s „Orfeo“ at the Komische Oper in Berlin | © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de Early music in Germany now rests on a broad and high-calibre foundation. That is the only way to account for its burgeoning from a niche phenomenon confined to a handful of period performance aficionados back in the mid-20th century into such a powerful practice permeating every area of music in our day. Source-critical stylistics and an historically detailed knowledge of phrasing, intonation and ornamentation are nowadays a matter-of-course "must" for any complete course of musical training. The way in which modern-day musicians play the music of, say, Johann Sebastian Bach, Joseph Haydn and Franz Schubert has benefited enormously from insights into authentic performance practice, even if the performers don't always happen to be early music specialists.

Ein Klang zwischen Gestern und Heute

The best example thereof is the SFR (Südwestfundrunk broadcasting corporation) Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (RSO), whose director for many years and current honorary conductor, Sir Roger Norrington, was awarded the German Order of Merit in November 2012. During Norrington's 13-year tenure at the helm of the RSO, the orchestra's historically informed "Stuttgart sound", with its use of modern instruments, won over lots of fans, who were delighted in August 2012 – a year after he left Stuttgart – when the RSO recordings of Franz Schubert's fourth and fifth symphonies came out on CD.

Altes wiederentdecken, Neues wagen

The dramaturgic watchword of the Schwetzingen SWR Festspiele is "Rediscovering the old, daring the new, giving young talents a chance". During the 2012 festival season, artists like the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra in phenomenal collaboration with Kristian Bezuidenhout on fortepiano, Stile Antico, Anima Eterna under the direction of Jos van Immerseel, Jordi Savall with Hespérion 21, and the Hilliard Ensemble took that motto to heart, rediscovering a wide range of music from Gregorian chants to Mozart for their audiences in highly-acclaimed performances.

Meanwhile, Aribert Reimann, one of the highest-profile contemporary opera composers in Germany along with Hans Werner Henze and Wolfgang Rihm, put together a concertante portrait of composers, providing a most unusual context for early music listening: in his programme, Reimann juxtaposed a performance by countertenor Tim Severloh and pianist Axel Bauni of his own Five Lieder After Poems by Paul Celan, in the composition of which the "Tenebrae theme" figured prominently, with François Couperin's Deuxième leçon de Ténèbres pour le mercredi Saint. These were exciting contrasts indeed between old and new, which, for all their stylistic diversity, nonetheless made clear to all ears the continuity of a vocal tradition over the course of nearly 300 years.

Wiederauferstehung I

Last year's concerts at the 60th anniversary festival in Schwetzingen also featured the premiere of Anton Schweitzer's opera Rosamunde using an adapted version of the libretto by Joseph Martin Wieland. Under the musical direction of Jan Willem de Vriend, Jens-Daniel Herzog's production was hailed by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as the "brilliant resurrection" of a work for the stage which, after its world premiere in Mannheim, had lain like Sleeping Beauty in a deep sleep for over 230 years.

Rein vokal und ziemlich alt

Speaking of fairy tales, the old Rommersdorf Abbey in Neuwied am Rhein, like many other grandiose Romanesque and Gothic churches in the Rhine Gorge, turns out to be an ideal spot for the performance of early music. For seven years now, to make the most of these enchanted venues, the annual RheinVokal Festival has been held in July and August in this UNESCO World Heritage region. Early music is writ large in the programme: at last year's opening concert, the young English ensemble Voces8, as yet hardly known in these parts, set off storms of enthusiasm at the very opening of the festival with music by Monteverdi and Palestrina, Byrd and Tavener, at the Saint Castor Basilica in Koblenz.

That was followed by vocal highlights like the reconstruction of a Johann Rosenmüller requiem by La Capella Ducale and Musica Fiata under the direction of Roland Wilson – must-have performers at any early music festival – along with European Renaissance lieder performed by soprano Johanette Zomer and lutenist Fred Jacobs from The Netherlands and the British Gallicantus singers under the direction of Gabriel Crouch.

Wiederauferstehung II

At RheinVokal these six English early music enthusiasts sang motets by William Byrd and his contemporaries, a programme they had performed only a few weeks before at the 28th Tage Alter Musik in Regensburg. The Regensburg festival rang out the year with a staging of the comic opera Il Marito indolente – Der gleichgültige Ehemann ("The Indolent Husband") by Dresden court composer Joseph Schuster (1748–1812). Schuster's work is all but forgotten in our day, 200 years after his death.

To help revive this long-neglected German composer, the Händel Festspiele in Halle are programming a Schuster oratorio – tellingly titled Lob der Musik ("Praise of Music") – for their 2013 season. But the highlight of the 2012 festival in Halle was Polish director Andrej Woron's visually stunning production of George Frideric Handel's opera seria Alcina under the musical direction of Bernhard Forck. Meanwhile, at the Händelfestspiele in Karlsruhe, Alexander Fahima's staging of Alessandro under Michael Form's musical direction proved quite a crowd puller, setting a new record for attendance. And up in Göttingen, the oldest and most established of the three Handel festivals, the new artistic director Lawrence Cummings made his debut with the oratorio Esther. A production of the opera Amadigi di Gaula was staged by Sigrid T'Hooft, a specialist in Baroque dance, and conducted by Andrew Parrott for his Göttingen debut.

Von sprudelnden Quellen und wissenschaftlicher Disziplin

The basis of all these opera productions is the painstaking work of the Hallische Händel-Ausgabe, a critical edition based on all known sheet music sources. This 116-volume edition of Handel's complete oeuvre has been in the works since 1955 and is slated for completion by 2023.

Along with other collected works – the Wagner edition was completed last year –, it is overseen by the Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur (Academy of Sciences and Literature) in Mainz and currently funded by the Akademieprogramm des Bundes und der Länder (German Federal and State Governments' Academic Programme) – a scholarly project which, in its tremendous proportions, has doubtless been a key factor in the above-mentioned omnipresence of early music and historically informed performance practice in the present-day music world.

Monteverdi as Arcadian big bang

Those who thought stage productions of Baroque operas tend to be (too) long were disabused of that misconception by an experiment at the Komische Oper Berlin in September 2012: all three of Claudio Monteverdi's operas were performed in a single day in a musical arrangement by composer Elena Kats-Chernin. For Barrie Kosky, this staging of the trilogy was just the right way to start off his tenure as director of the opera company. "In the overpowering directness of his Arcadian big bang lie all the experiences of director's theatre: irony, hyperbole, alienation effects" raved Die ZEIT online (20 Sept. 2012). And the best of it is that this triple-pack Monteverdi showcase is still playing at Berlin's Komische Oper till the end of the 2013 season.

Birthday boys

"Frederick fever" took hold virtually "right around the corner" in 2012: for the tercentenary of Frederick the Great's birthday, the Musikfestspiele Potsdam Sanssouci held a wide array of concerts at the original sites where the Prussian emperor once made music himself, and where the likes of Quantz, Benda, Graun and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach could be heard playing in one of Europe's leading orchestras and cultivated musical ties to the European hubs of the Rococo. In this vein, the brilliant opening concert featuring the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin ("Akamus" for short) was titled "In love with Europe: Gallant role models for Sanssouci: French, Italians – and Turks".

In 2012 "Akamus" celebrated their 30th anniversary and treated themselves to a particularly lavish programme for the year, including the following three highlights: Christoph Willibald Gluck's Telemaco and Johann Sebastian Bach's St Matthew Passion, both under the baton of René Jacobs, plus Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas choreographed by Sasha Waltz.

Collaborative trend

On the whole, the trend towards collaborative productions of early music was more pronounced than ever in 2012. Not only did new partners team up last year for historically informed performances, but they also moved geographically closer together to make the most of synergies for greater efficiency: in Freiburg, for example, where early and new music, in the shape of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and the ensemble recherche, reside right next door to each other and work together a lot in the newly-opened Ensemblehaus. Or up in Cologne, where the Zentrum für Alte Musik (ZAMUS), a new and unique networking project in Germany in which soloists and ensembles can share administrative and PR services, replete with workshops, rehearsal rooms and instrument rental.

In sum, the year 2012 turned out to be an inexhaustible horn of plenty for friends of early music – and, happily, even in places not necessarily so labelled: the days of the museification and ivory tower isolation of the early music scene in Germany are fortunately gone for good.