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2009 Jos van Immerseel 01 _ Alex Vanhee

Jos van Immerseel, all-round musician of the Belgian historical performance, arranged a capricious programme alternating between humour and tragedy for the Baroque ensemble of the Budapest Festival Orchestra (revizoronline.com)

Recently, I have reported in several critiques on concerts where I observed the very same – and rather appealing – phenomenon, which I would call, with a slight exaggeration, the resumption of the early music repertoire. Approximately thirty years ago when the practice of historical performances rippled through Hungary, we only felt the beneficial effect of the change for a long time: workshops were set up to produce works in the spirit of the early and new sensitivity. However, the negative aspect of this was that “traditional” (what a contradictory word in this context!) symphony orchestras, chamber orchestras and soloists playing on modern instruments were scared away by the substantial part of the repertoire, they did not play Bach, Vivaldi and Händel anymore, and prestigious symphony orchestras soon tended not to venture into the territories of Haydn and Mozart. An artificially reduced scope for modern orchestras was born, ranging from Beethoven to the 21st century. If there is one thing the greatest historical musicians from Harnoncourt to Gardiner wanted to avoid, it is this limiting specialisation, since Harnoncourt conducted Haydn and Mozart pieces played by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the Concertgebouw Amsterdam and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, indicating that it is not the instrument which is crucial, but the way of thinking.

Decades passed, and a sense of unnatural detachment sharpened, which deprived a generation of symphony orchestra members of the baroque and classicism – it seems, however, that something has changed recently: some symphony orchestras with modern instruments are daring to include Brandenburg Concertos in their programme again, as a true “early music production”, with great success. I have heard something similar in the rehearsal hall of the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra as well as at a concert of the Concerto Budapest. The Baroque ensemble of the Budapest Festival Orchestra is the most notable example – but the fact remains that they play on period instruments, which nevertheless increases the value of the performance by virtue of the flexible adaptability. The ensemble has already given – world-class – concerts conducted by Reinhard Goebel and Nicholas McGegan, and now Jos van Immerseel (1945), all-round musician of the Belgian early music movement, harpsichord player, fortepiano player and conductor, was invited to perform on two consecutive evenings at the Italian Cultural Institute as a guest musician as part of a special music programme.

In the first part – full of rarely played pieces – a cantata (Ach, daß ich Wassers gnug hätte… by Johann Christoph Bach) was played after the consort music for strings (Capriccio Stravagante by Carlo Farina; Lamento sopra la morte Ferdinandi III by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer; Battalia by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber), while the second part included Claudio Monteverdi’s masterpiece entitled the Battle of Tancredi and Clorinda, which is performed once a leap year, if we are lucky.

The programme, which mainly comprised early Baroque pieces, alternated between humour and tragedy: Capriccio by Farina (1600–1639) exerts the greatest effect through its fragmentary structure, discursiveness and disjointed thoughts, only presenting what is happening, without unfolding or touching anything in detail, and continuously searching for new materials. Schmelzer’s (1623–1680) Lamento, whose 49 tragic beats commemorate the 49 years of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III, indeed laments the monarch (Immerseel draws attention to the arithmetic correspondence in an interview in the concert brochure). The Battle by Biber (1644–1704) is lavishly illustrated – with grotesque and naturalistic effects to name but a few. Something similar (e.g. imitation of animal sounds) is also present in Farino’s Capriccio, while the cantata Ach, daß ich Wassers gnug hätte… written by Johann Christoph Bach (1642–1703 – the concert brochure accidentally included a portrait of Johann Christian Bach, born 93 years later, instead of his) is the flagellation of a repentant soul, resembling a piece of – rather modern – “baroque expressionism”. Monteverdi’s (1567–1643) Tancredi is a passionate and dramatic scene with a musical process that follows and demonstrates the trepidation of the strugglers’ spirit faithfully.

The pieces were performed by string orchestras of smaller size (with five, six or nine members), Immerseel did not conduct during the evening, but directed his musicians from the harpsichord with a presence both restrained and suggestive. Members of the Festival Orchestra playing on historical instruments continuously alternated, so each production was performed by different musicians – but a high standard was successfully maintained throughout the evening (I can only repeat myself: there is no doubt at all that it was a world-class performance). List of performers: János Pilz, Ágnes Bíró, Eszter Lesták Bedő, Gyöngyvér Oláh, Zsolt Szefcsik (violin), Ágnes Csoma, Zoltán Fekete, Barna Juhász, Péter Kostyál (viola), György Kertész, Mahdi Kousay (cello), Attila Martos (double bass) – and of course Jos van Immerseel (harpsichord), the mind behind the thrilling and stopgap evening and spiritus rector of the productions. Marianne Beate Kielland, excellent mezzo-soprano from Norway, rendered Johann Christoph Bach’s cantata with bewitching suggestivity, so much so that her performance revealed the unique tone and introspective religious passion of the piece.

She played the role of Clorinda in the second part alongside Belgian tenor Vincent Lesage acting and singing as Tancredi (the production featured actors on stage wearing costumes and carrying props such as swords and shields; costume: Edit Zeke, Baroque gestures: Sigrid T’Hooft). Those who are familiar with the piece know that the most, or rather, the only important part of the Combattimento performance – and that of passions – is Testo’s, the other tenor, who is a storyteller rather than an active player. The outsider, who knows the stakes are high and feels the pain and excitement of every moment of the combat with great compassion and empathy in the dramatic series of events, becomes a more active player than the two people fighting each other, which is also emphasised by Monteverdi: the struggling couple barely sing in the composition, whereas Testo’s continuous vocal presence completely dominates. Markus Schäfer sang very well, and made just the right gestures, which conveyed the subtle abstraction of a noble mannerism, the prime and real passion aroused in front of our eyes, identification and living through the shocking and serious deadly combat, which are the essence of Testo’s character. Markus Schäfer’s Testo was what Thomas Mann calls in The Holy Sinner the “spirit of storytelling”.

Kristóf Csengery