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Early Music 2018
Sought and found: Fresh impetus and a second wind for early music

Julia Grote and Lukas Köster performing <i>Hand to Hand</i> on the market square in Annaberg-Buchholz as part of the Erzgebirge music festival <i>Barocke Circusträume</i> (“Baroque Circus Dreams”)
Julia Grote and Lukas Köster performing Hand to Hand on the market square in Annaberg-Buchholz as part of the Erzgebirge music festival Barocke Circusträume (“Baroque Circus Dreams”) | Photo (detail): © Mathias Marx

Early music has long since become a staple of the classical music scene in Germany. But is it still capable of taking risks or being provocative, the way it was in its early years? This was the subject of a symposium held in 2018. Meanwhile, a number of festivals, CD recordings and projects to nurture young talents have gone exciting new ways.

By Dr Bernhard Schrammek

Zukunft Alte Musik symposium in Berlin

On 5 March, 2018, Radialsystems V, Esslingen’s Podium Festival and the #bebeethoven fellowship project held a conference in Berlin about the future of early music. A great many representatives of festivals, conservatoires and universities, institutional concert venues and ensembles from all over Germany got together for lectures and discussions about early music present challenges and future prospects. The consensus was that early music does not play the role it did four or five decades ago: back then, performing early music was synonymous with a pioneering spirit and bold experiments, and functioned as a protest movement, in the spirit of ‘68, against the all-too-established concert business. Today, two generations on, historically informed practice is a matter of course, and there’s plenty of top-notch training, diverse concert series, competitions, festivals and, of course, so many outstanding soloists and ensembles around that it’s hard to keep track of them all. No doubt about it, “early music” is firmly established in our day.
This is a positive development, Elina Albach, harpsichordist in the Ensemble Continuum, said at the symposium, but it has its downsides: there is too much uncritical reproduction nowadays, not enough experimenting with new concert and recording formats, while the elevated average age of concertgoers raises the question of the future target audience: “You don’t necessarily sense a ‘spark of imagination’ or fresh impetus, new departures – the rebellious side of it is long gone.”
In the concluding discussion, the organizers and musicians aired a number of innovative ideas – and repeatedly insisted that this important symposium ought to take place again. Such a regular forum could generate some very concrete ideas for new approaches to public performance of early music.

A spate of new discs

CDs may be a “dying medium”, now that more and more music is being downloaded or streamed on the Internet and recording sessions are becoming increasingly expensive, but “good old CDs” still enjoy great popularity in the early music scene. 2018 produced another spate of new releases, many of which feature excellent renditions of carefully selected works, in some cases first recordings or unusual arrangements, with detailed, informative booklets. Three standouts among these recent releases are: Songs of Consolation, on which Ensemble Sequentia present 11th-century settings – which musicologists spent years deciphering – of the Consolation of Philosophy, a famous treatise by the ancient Roman philosopher Boethius; SoundscapeLeonardo da Vinci by the Capella de la Torre about the quintessential Renaissance man; and War and Peace by Dorothee Mields and Berlin’s Lautten Compagney, which builds a musical bridge between the Thirty Years’ War and the world wars of the 20th century.
A number of remarkable debut albums were released by young soloists and ensembles last year too. Violinist Evgeny Sviridov, winner of the Bach competitions in Leipzig and Berlin, has come out with a fantastic recording of Giuseppe Tartini’s Violin Sonatas, Op. 1. A solo CD by Tabea Debus, a young recorder player, strikingly contrasts Georg Philipp Telemann’s fantasias for solo recorder with contemporary works for the instrument. Kensuke Ohira, winner of the Nuremberg organ competition in 2016, has recorded a disc on the Wiegleb organ in Ansbach. And the Ensemble Continuum released Traumwerk, an album that is not only musically, but also graphically and editorially impressive, featuring compositions by Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli and James Dillon along with recitations of poetry by Paul Fleming, Andreas Gryphius and other 17th-century poets.

Festivals old and new

Several early music festivals marked the anniversaries of the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War 400 years ago and the end of the First World War 100 years ago. “War and Peace” was the motto of the Cologne and Stuttgart festivals last year. The Heinrich Schütz festival fêted its 20th anniversary under the banner “Verley uns frieden” (“Give Us Peace”) and the Wittenberg Renaissance Festival showcased period music from the era of the Thirty Years’ War (“Klänge statt Klingen”– “Sounds Instead of Swords”).
Meanwhile, the Bach festival in Köthen featured some spectacular new concert formats, including a number of brief concerts in Köthen castle’s newly renovated hall of mirrors. And speaking of mirrors, the Erzgebirge festival combined circus arts with live performances of Baroque music in Barocke Circusträume (“Baroque Circus Dreams”), held in the historically informed décor of a tent of mirrors set up on the market square of Annaberg-Buchholz.
One extraordinary highlight of the festival year was the Kantatenring at Leipzig’s Bach festival: over the course of a single weekend, a total of 30 sacred Bach cantatas were performed in Leipzig’s inner-city churches by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, Japan’s Bach Collegium, the Gaechinger Cantorey and the Monteverdi Choir, among others.
At the end of 2018, the Berlin State Opera inaugurated a new festival called Barocktage (“Baroque Days”), resoundingly celebrating early music with a line-up of several opera productions (including Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie performed by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle) as well as concerts, lectures and other events.


In the run-up to 2020, the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, some Baroque orchestras are already hard at work on his symphonic works: the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, for instance, celebrated their 30th anniversary in 2018 with several performances of Beethoven’s Ninth, and Berlin’s Akademie für Alte Musik added several Beethoven symphonies to their repertoire. Generally speaking, German early music ensembles have been branching out, increasingly aligning their repertoires with those of traditional symphony orchestras. Under the motto “Wagner-Lesarten” (“Interpretations of Wagner”), Concerto Köln in 2018 launched a multi-year project that is to culminate in the first historically informed performance of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen, under the direction of Kent Nagano. These wide-ranging forays into more recent musical realms are bound to have an audible impact on performances by many orchestras that use modern instruments.

Water Music  educational project

German public broadcaster ARD held the fourth edition of its Educational Project last year, this time – under the direction of fellow broadcaster MDR – dedicated to George Frideric Handel. Schoolkids all over Germany were asked to come up with their own “water music compositions”, either on their own or with their classmates. The campaign was rounded out by a bunch of workshops with prominent musicians at various locations. The results were prodigious: over 250 original compositions were evaluated by the jury, which, given the huge number of submissions, awarded seven prizes instead of three, as originally planned.