Early music in 2011 The adventure continues

Early music remained very much alive and thriving in Germany in 2011, a year marked not only by the rediscovery of works by Johann Adolf Hasse and Johann Ludwig Bach, but also by the breakthrough of some Baroque ensembles.

Countertenor Valer Barna-Sabudus (centre) in a production of Didone abbandonnata at Munich’s Prinzregententheater in 2011; photo: © A.T.Schamfer Countertenor Valer Barna-Sabudus (centre) in a production of Didone abbandonnata at Munich’s Prinzregententheater in 2011; photo: © A.T.Schamfer | Photo: © A.T.Schaefer Germany still hosts the greatest number of early music festivals in the whole world: they're going strong up north and down south, in the west and, above all, in the east, where some small but particularly exquisite "varieties" have been blossoming forth. As a matter of fact, historically informed performance of early music has become an integral part of many a "conventional" classical festival in our day. How come?

Naturally, there are plenty of reasons: The sheer mass of good music that has been preserved despite all the losses over time. The tenacious ongoing efforts to sleuth out the historical circumstances and conditions of performance, which continually yield surprising insights. And a highly responsive public that appreciates the intelligent "multiculti" mosaic of early music. To this day, there is still plenty of early music left to dig up and savour, and plenty left to say about it too.

Especially in the German cultural sphere, where many centuries of political and sectarian fragmentation have left a musical diversity that can scarcely be found in any other European cultural landscape. Due appreciation for this cultural heritage, which goes beyond such towering luminaries as Orlando di Lasso, Heinrich Schütz, Johann Sebastian Bach and George Friedrich Handel, is a wonderful trend of recent years.

That "dear Saxon" Johann Adolf Hasse

One of the fascinating discoveries of 2011 was the operas by a man whom his contemporaries deemed the greatest opera composer of his age: Johann Adolf Hasse (1699–1783), affectionately known to Italians as il caro Sassone, "the dear Saxon". He was much sought-after by emperors and empresses like Frederick the Great and Maria Theresa, and much admired by great minds like Voltaire. And that comes as little surprise after the gala performance of Hasse's arias at last year's Handel Festival in Halle, where mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux and the Concerto Köln ensemble, performing with virtuosity and emotion, put Hasse on a musical par with his older fellow Saxon, G.F. Handel.

Hasse-mania also hit Munich, where the Bayerische Theaterakademie August Everding and the Munich University of Music and Performing Arts, backed up by the indefatigable Hasse Society, staged Hasse's opera Didone abbandonata at the Prinzregententheater (Prince Regent's Theatre): what drama, what emotional fireworks at the close of the late Baroque! Romanian-German countertenor Valer Barna-Sabadus was rapturously acclaimed, as were his fellow singers from the academy and the university, along with Balász Kovalik's production team and, last but not least, the Munich Hofkapelle, which, under the direction of Rüdiger Lotter, played its way into the first division of German early music ensembles.

Feisty and resourceful: fledgling orchestras on the way up

On the whole, as a matter of fact, Germany's veteran early music ensembles are passing the torch. Some top-flight groups from the early days of the revival like Musica Antiqua Köln (Cologne) have disbanded. And some renowned second- and third-generation orchestras like Concerto Köln, with its "safe bet" of a Christmas CD, and the Freiburger Barockorchester, with an umpteenth recording of Bach's Orchestral Suites, have been comfortably resting on their laurels a bit (though the Freiburg orchestra did deserve the praise they garnered for their fine, buoyant recording of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's piano concertos with fortepiano specialist Andreas Staier).

Meantime, smaller ensembles now carry the vital spark of the early music movement. One such ensemble is the Elbipolis Barockorchester Hamburg, which in their concerts and on a CD (produced with German broadcaster WDR) unearthed another marvel in 2011: the Musicalische Concerte, some powerful late Baroque music of great beauty by Handel's contemporary Johann Christian Schieferdecker, who in 1707 succeeded Dieterich Buxtehude as organist and Werckmeister (administrator and bookkeeper) at the Marienkirche (St Mary's Church) in Lübeck.

The Elbipolis musicians demonstrated their willingness to take risks and cross boundaries in teaming up with DJ Brezel Göring at the Kissinger Musik-Marathon in October 2011: who'd have guessed that the collision between Baroque music and electronic loops would prove so captivating?

La Stagione Frankfurt forged ahead with their colourful recordings of Georg Philipp Telemann's complete wind concertos in 2011. And at the 27th Tage Alter Musik in Herne, under the baton of Michael Schneider, they struck a rousing and persuasive blow for the music of the brothers Graun, Carl Heinrich and Johann Gottlieb Graun.

Likewise from Frankfurt is the Main-Barockorchester, which in previous years had already recorded some lovely CDs of works by German composers between the late Baroque and pre-Classical periods, including Johann Melchior Molter, Johann Wilhelm Hertel and Johann Friedrich Fasch.
A propos of the latter, the Main-Barockorchester in 2011 travelled to the International Fasch Festival in the town of Zerbst, in Saxony-Anhalt, where Fasch spent much of his life as Kapellmeister. At the opening concert in April, the orchestra under the direction of first violinist Martin Jopp played Fasch's magnificent Overture in D minor – making a compelling case for a great composer long overshadowed by Bach and Handel.

Bach and family: no end in sight

But Bach was also among the discoveries of the year 2011, albeit in this case Johann Sebastian Bach's distant cousin from the town of Meiningen, Johann Ludwig Bach. The RIAS-Kammerchor and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, under the direction of Hans-Christoph Rademann, made a first-ever CD recording of Johann Ludwig Bach's impassioned and highly original funeral music for Ernst Ludwig von Sachsen-Meiningen, for which they were showered with awards.

Moreover, at the 2011 edition of the Ansbach Bach Festival, Rademann garnered unanimous applause with "his" Dresden Kammerchor and the Dresden Barockorchester for a gorgeous gossamery rendition of (J.S.) Bach's B-minor Mass and a moving and meditative take on Heinrich Schütz's Musikalische Exequien in the ideal ambiance of the medieval cathedral in Heilsbronn, Central Franconia.

A Bach concert held at the 27th early music festival in Regensburg, on the other hand, did not go down quite as smoothly: the audience was polarized mainly by the slightly unusual mise en scène, replete with archangels in go-go outfits, and Jesus and Mary Magdalene dancing the tango: daring, tasteless, or simply banal? The audience had to take sides, and that's a good thing, too.

Where cultures clash and mesh

After all, breaking with habitual ways of seeing and hearing music, making new connections – a vibrant early music scene can't do without it. In mid-June 2011, for example, the montalbâne Festival held in Freyburg in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, one of the most renowned medieval music festivals, juxtaposed a Marienmesse (lady mass) by Hildegard von Bingen with classical Indian temple chants, and the contemplative souls of ages past and present seemed to reach out to one another there across traditions, centuries and continents.

A similarly wide range of music was spanned at the 2011 Fränkischer Sommer - Musica Franconia: one of the themes of the festival was "Minnesang and Orient", taken up by the Pera Ensemble from Istanbul, among others, in their juxtaposition of Italian Baroque music and the sounds of the seraglio.
Meanwhile, at St. Sebaldus Church in Nuremberg, where Johann Pachelbel received his musical training as a young man and served as organist for the last ten years of his life, a performance of his geistliche Konzerte ("spiritual concertos") and a missa with all the brassy pomp and resplendence of the erstwhile imperial city of Nuremberg paid homage to the great composer.

Cooperation: a formula for success

At the Nuremberg conservatoire's Tage Alter Musik festival, Nuremberg also demonstrated in 2011 how cooperation can generate momentum for early music. Together with and at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, with its collection of musical instruments, the conservatoire held a much-noticed workshop in historical woodwinds, at which Baroque bassoonist Sergio Azzolini gave master classes. Azzolini also performed his magic on the bassoon with his L'Aura Soave Cremona ensemble in the Musica Antiqua concert series held jointly by the museum and the Bavarian radio's studio in Nuremberg.

Folk music instead of early music?!

One renowned German festival with a focus on early music/historically informed performance called it quits in 2011: for 19 years, conductor Bruno Weil's exciting programmes had drawn a great many visitors to the eastern Allgäu region for the Klang & Raum ("Sound & Space") festival at a monastery in Irsee. But now the local government is hell bent on cutting costs drastically, so Weil bid farewell last year, appropriately enough, with Haydn's "Mourning" Symphony. Word has it that the municipal decision-makers are considering starting up a folk music festival to take Klang & Raum's place.

Public spirit and organ pipes

But to conclude this retrospective on a positive note: at St. Mauritius Church in Hollern, a town in the Altes Land area near Hamburg, one of the last unrenovated organs by Arp Schnitger (1648–1719) was restored and re-consecrated in August of 2011. About half of the 24 stops, including a marvellously singing principal, stemmed from the "Stradivarius of Northern German Baroque organs". The firm of Ahrend organbuilders restored the whole instrument to its original condition as far as possible, including its historical pure-thirds tuning.

So henceforth this will be an ideal place to experience the organ music of Dieterich Buxtehude, Matthias Weckmann and Nicolaus Bruhns in an authentic and intimate setting. This major project was jointly funded by a number of benefactors, ranging from the regional church, the county government and various foundations to the Lions Club and private sponsors.
All of them – and not least the public broadcasters without whom a number of the above-mentioned projects would never have materialized – contributed to making 2011 a good year for early music in Germany. This cultural public-spiritedness is a valuable asset that should not be thoughtlessly thrown away in future (as happened in Irsee).