Early Music 2015 From the Depths of Time

Andreas Staier
Andreas Staier | Photo (detail): © Josep Molina /ks-schoerke.de

Not all the blank spots on the map of Early Music have been charted yet – not by a long shot. In addition to new discoveries for the repertoire, 2015 also brought forgotten timbres to our ears as well as new developments in the art of improvisation.

“Everything that endures is quiet”: this saying by the early 20th-century German poet Joachim Ringelnatz could readily be taken for Early Music’s maxim in 2015: a year that for once was not marked by the stridently celebrated anniversaries of great composers, but in which a number of developments necessary for the vitality and appeal of the Early Music movement were carried forward all the more tenaciously and inspiringly.
 
To be truly alive, music has to be grasped as a living language – which is why the Early Music scene has recently placed a premium on the ability to improvise, a skill which up through the 19th century was regarded as a basic prerequisite for the musical profession. LivFE!, the Leipzig Early Music Improvisation Festival initiated by Martin Ehrhardt, has evolved into an important venue for everyone interested in stylistically authentic improvisational practice. A great many different aspects of improvisation were presented and explored in workshops, lectures and concerts there from 17–20 September 2015, including everything from polyphonic vocal improvisation, as performed by the Ensemble Obsidienne, to free extemporization in the manner of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. The album fantasia baroque by Alexander and Alexandra Grychtolik is proof positive that “pure” improvisational practice – i.e. not geared towards crossover – has now hit the CD market, too. The Telemann competition in Magdeburg was also exemplary in its commitment to promoting and conferring distinction on the improvisational art of free ornamentation, awarding a special prize to flautist Jan van Hoecke for his historically informed ornamentation.

Into the 19th century on the piano

The cut-off point for what we mean by “Early Music” has been persistently pushing forward into the 19th and even early 20th century. Nowhere is this development more conspicuous than in piano music. Knowledge of keyboard instruments that predate the advent of the modern concert grand in the 1850s has long since ceased to be the exclusive province of experts, even though we have not even begun to answer the question of how to deal properly with the wide range of different models developed in an age of continual innovation from one decade to the next. The most important contributions to this exploration of period keyboard instruments include Tobias Koch’s recording of Beethoven’s complete piano works on fortepianos and pianos made by Schmahl, Rosenberger, Streicher and Graf as well as a transportable Orphika. Pianist Andreas Staier has made another key contribution to reappraising the sound of the core Romantic repertoire for keyboard with his triple-CD recording of Schumann on a pure-toned 1837 Erard piano. Gerrit Zitterbart’s album 1829 testified to the fact that the personality of a period instrument, in this case an instrument made in 1829 by Nanette Streicher & Son in Vienna, is just as important as the personality of a historical composer.
 
The debate about the proper way of performing Early Music continued through the year 2015. We can discern two different motivations, though they are indeed combined in practice: one side is interested in bringing out the effect of historical works and instruments at least partly in a setting that resembles their original context. The other approach, in contrast, capitalizes on the lack of standards for historical performance, which are either unknown or non-existent, in order to expressly create new contexts. What gives this exploration a latent political dimension is that the bulk of Early Music dates from before the Enlightenment, hence the question of how we are to deal with the pre-Enlightenment religious messages of our own cultural heritage.
 
Concert designer Folkert Uhde put together a powerful and thought-provoking collage-like performance entitled Aus der Tiefe der Zeit (From the Depths of Time) at Berlin’s Radialsystem on 12 February 2015. With the Audi Jugendchorakademie, the Singphoniker and the Ensemble Mixtura (comprising shawm and accordion), Guillaume de Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame and Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir entered into a direct and mutually respectful dialogue with new compositions by Samir Odeh-Tamimi, incorporating extremely varied lightings and setups within the concert space. More controversy broke out over Johannespassion-Judasprozess (St John Passion/Trial of Judas), a more politically ambitious production staged by Eckhardt Kruse-Seilers and conducted by Thomas Neuhoff during the “Week of Brotherhood” and the Cologne Early Music Festival on 5 March at Cologne’s Trinitatiskirche with Concerto Köln and the choir of the Cologne Bach Society. There were differences of opinion as to whether Holy Scripture, textual insertions by Walter Jens and breakdance interludes fit together to form a coherent whole.

Discoveries for the repertoire

In addition to experimenting with different forms of performance and period instruments, the Early Music scene also sees tracking down unknown repertoires as one of its essential tasks. The focus is not on the first performance or recording of these works, but more on proving they are fit material for the repertoire. The most significant work to be discovered last year in the German-speaking cultural area was Niobe, Regina di Tebe, an opera Agostino Steffani composed for Munich in 1688, which was then performed by the Boston Early Music Festival in a guest appearance at the Dortmund Konzerthaus. Meanwhile, at the Unter den Linden State Opera in Berlin, René Jacobs and the Akademie für Alte Musik paid tribute to one of the principal works of Baroque opera in German: Emma und Eginhard oder Die Last-tragende Liebe. Owing to their mix of languages and their satirical minor characters, the works of the Hamburg opera, for which Telemann wrote this piece, were long deemed not quite satisfying enough for inclusion in the canon. But Eva-Maria Höckmayr’s staging drove home the politically critical and formally Shakespearean spirit of the tragicomedy of Charlemagne’s scribe and his unattainable royal beloved, and proved the work repertoire material.

A new take on mourning

Last year’s jubilees for Johann Melchior Molter (250th anniversary of his death), a composer interested in musical timbre, and for Bach’s important forerunner Nikolaus Bruhns (350th anniversary of his birth) and the versatile Seth Calvisius (quadricentenary of his death) did not bring any groundbreaking new discoveries. However, a lost work by Johann Sebastian Bach was presented live and on CD last year in a new and complete reconstruction by Alexander Grychtolik in time for the 900th anniversary of the city of Köthen: it is the so-called Köthener Trauermusik (Köthen’s Funeral Music) for Bach’s employer Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen, several parts of which were later worked into the St Matthew Passion; so knowledge of this piece enriches our understanding on the major passion.
 
As for performing artists, countertenors in particular got plenty of public exposure and plenty of press last year. In the German-speaking world the spotlight was on countertenor Valer Sabadus, with his balanced and resounding voice in every register, as well as his French counterpart Philippe Jaroussky, who gave his first recital in German. Soprano Dorothee Mields distinguished herself once again with her exquisite renditions of Baroque lyrics, her versatility and willingness to take part in innovative performance projects. Violinists Leila Schayegh and Johannes Pramsohler carried conviction particularly with their outstanding ornamentation and their subtle handling of the repertoire from the transitional period of the galant style, which is often too one-sidedly interpreted from the high baroque or classical perspective. No rendition can transport us back in time with guaranteed authenticity, to be sure, but friends of Early Music can now at least read their way back into the 18th-century music world thanks to the rediscovery of the detailed and graphic travel diary of organ builder Andreas Silbermann.