L’Itinéraire was a day of remarkably high musical standards in 2023

FranceFrance Itinéraire Baroque 2023 II – L’Itinéraire: Various locations and performers, 29.7.2023. (CC)

Pietro Paganini (positive organ) © Jean-Michel Bale

I – Johann Sebastian Bach and his European Inspirations. Pietro Paganini (positive organ). Église Abbatiale Saint-Cybard de Cercles, Périgord, France, 29.7.2023

 Music by Froberger, Frescobaldi, Weckmann, Clérambault, Böhm and Bach

That familiar expectancy returned: the opening concert at Cercles, with full audience before being split into groups to experience a sequence of concerts in various locations in the area in the company of a guide who introduced the venues from an architectural standpoint. A unique experience. Six concerts in six venues (mainly churches) with a lunch in the middle.

Fascinating to start with music around Bach, beginning with music by Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667). The musical guide here was the young organist Pietro Paganini (what a name!) who had studied with both Ton Koopman and his wife Tini Mathot at the Hague; later, he obtained a Master’s degree specialising in the music of Buxtehude. Paganini is a most sensitive player, arguably more so than his famous teacher. The florid scalic passages of Froberger’s Toccata were brilliant, the whole remarkably free with inserts of discipline in clear-as-crystal fugal passages that sometimes seemed to scamper. A fine and intelligent use of stops, too.

The music of Frescobaldi seems to be gaining traction (there are some superb releases on the Tactius label). Paganini’s reading of Frescobaldi’s Canzona terza (from the 1627 Libro secondo) was fresh as you like, and it was fascinating to hear the subject heard in augmentation as a cantus firmus. The sublime ‘Bergamasca’ from Fiori musicali was a true highlight, though – impeccably, ineffably beautiful.

The name of Matthias Weckmann might be lesser known, but his Partita, ‘Die Lieblichen Blicke’ is a gem. It shows multiple influences – from lute music through the Sweelinck school and on to the polyphony of Scheidemann, but it is all of a piece, full of imagination that Paganini was at pains to illuminate. This is a beautifully crafted piece.

Far darker, the Plein Jeu that opens Louis-Nicolaus Clérambault’s Suite du deuxième ton took us to a very different space. This was quite a journey for a short recital – and how Paganini relishes the exultant writing here. The ensuing Duo (the very next movement) had more of a spring in its step (the theme is full of character) while the Trio seemed slippery, elusive. This is massively imaginative music, heard in an ideal performance. There are seven movements of which we heard the first three – how good it would be to hear the whole!

The two contrasting movements from Georg Böhm’s F minor Suite offered a mix of French and Italian movements (Allemande and Ciacona) with North German rigour

Anyway, all roads lead to Bach, right? Well these did – the amazing Capriccio in E major, BWV 993, probably dedicated to his elder brother, written around 1702 after the composer studied at Lüneberg. Good to hear music by the young Bach, and Paganini injected the enthusiasm of youth straight into the music’s belly, offered a hypnotic trill ascent, seemed fascinated by the Master’s extraordinary harmonic excursions, and overall crowned an already spectacular recital with interpretative nous of the very highest order to a packed church. What a way to start this year’s Itinéraire

II – Giro d’Italia: Venice, Mantua. Lucca, Naples, Rome. Susan Jonkers (soprano), Annelies Schraa (recorder), Michiel Niessen (lute). Église Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens (Gout-Rossignol).

Music by Vivaldi, Zamboni and A. Scarlatti

This was a fabulous idea: a whistle-stop tour of Italy via Baroque music in way less than an hour. The title of the concert comes from the Italian bicycle race (which started in 1909). The ‘race’ here began in Venice with Vivaldi and a glorious aria from Orlando Furioso. The intimacy of recorder and lute seemed perfect in the lovely twelfth-century church. The extended recorder opening was magical – Annelies Schraa ensured legato lines spoke almost vocally, her later virtuosity clear and full. She was nicely in tune, as well (the same cannot be said of all recorder players in my experience …). As to Susan Jonkers (who founded a duo with the lute player, Michiel Niessen), her voice is simply sent from Heaven.

The solo lute piece was by Lucca-born Giovanni Zamboni (1664-1721). Niessen is an expert player, his instrument notably resonant (particularly at the bass end). The Current is beautiful. The odd slip was hardly a problem. The chaconne was blessed with a lovely bass-line (repeated on a loop, of course) over which the treble became ever more ornate.

Finally, some Scarlatti père, who illuminated Naples, then Rome. How wonderful was Junkers’s reading; how she relished the word ‘gelosia’, how well she ornamented the vocal line on the da capo (with cadenza!). The declamation of the central recitative was gripping (and how nice to hear a tremolando on lute at the word ‘tremo’!). The final aria was an Andante (‘Quel vento che t’in torno’), a celebration of love and beauty. This was a notably brisk andante even within the historically informed world, jaunty really, and how its lightness worked. A pure delight – and a spoiler. This was one of the top concerts of the day (a couple are to follow, one possibly a little more contentious).

III – Sweet Stillness: Mary Bevan (soprano), Davina Clarke (violin), Sergio Bucheli (theorbo). Église Saint-Pardoux de Mareuil. Concert in memory of Hellmut Wempe.

(l-r) Davina Clarke (violin), Mary Bevan (soprano) and Sergio Bucheli (theorbo) © Jean-Michel Bale

Music by Matteis, Handel and Piccinini

This was an absolute highlight of this year’s Itinéraire. Mary Bevan is well-known to UK audiences, and the purity of her voice (and the truth of her interpretations) mark her out as exceptional. Both of those qualities were fully on display here, punctuated by little gems by Nicola Matteis (1650-1714) perfumed with sweet melodies and, in the ‘Aria’, ornate lines. Davina Clarke’s accuracy was a major part of the success of these performances. Piccinini’s Aria di Sarabanda in varie partite (to give it its full title) was a beautiful theorbo solo, gentle toned and fully of fantasy in this performance by Sergio Bucheli.

But it was the Handel pieces that were the backbone here, starting with the gentle ‘Süsser Stille’, perfectly stylish, heartfelt. Bevan’s voice is full and yet perfectly in style, her legato (and her clean slurs) impeccable; her diction, too, was superb. Each word projected far back into the lovely church. Changes of mood were expertly tracked. The excerpt from Il Trionfo, ‘Tu del Ciel’ is one of those held-breath Handel arias that features a violin solo. Bevan’s phrasing was heavenly. Time stood still; an illusion prolonged by ‘Süsser Stille’ from the Deutschen Arien. It was Clarke’s violin curlicues that were so mesmerising here (and a superb trill in the repeat of the A section).

A truly magical concert.

IV- La Querelleuse: The Counterpoints. Église Saint-Pierre-ès-liens (Vieux-Mareuil).

Chamber music of Georg Philipp Telemann

A fascinating selection of Telemann (hearkening back to the great Telemann year Itinéraire Baroque!). The title, ‘La Querelleuse’ (the Quarrelsome woman) refers to Telemann’s second wife, Maria Catherine. The piece itself is arranged by The Counterpoints (who have recorded it on Etcetera).

The recording is far more comfortable to listen to than this performance, sadly. At least from where I was sitting, much (of not most) of the detail was lost in the generous acoustic of the Église Saint-Pierre. The gentle Rondeau second movement perhaps emerged best; anything fast and furious (the third movement, entitled ‘Les Combatants’) stood little chance (a pity, as the recording is fabulous and full of energy). Telemann’s ebullience is all there in the music, but much got lost here, although the truly lovely Menuet I & II nearly made up for it.

Both Trio Sonatas are on that disc, too. The A minor (Frankfurt, 1718) is decidedly dark. A string change for the violinist, Matthea de Muynck, left him with some tuning problems; Thomas Triesschijn remained a fine exponent of the recorder throughout. The Vivace is busy, and requires definition (again, go to the recording). It was the final Menuet that was the finest movement, its Trio consisting of violin and recorder alone, an effective gesture. Finally, the G minor trio begins with a movement in search of a ground (it begins as if it means to be). A truly lovely movement, it cedes to a pointed Vivace, a truly lovely Largo and a rapid-fire finale (marked Allegro and sounding it on the disc, it felt more like a Presto in France).

V – Les Sonates d’un Goût Etranger: Chiara Zanisi (violin), Giulia Nuti (harpsichord). Église Saint Barthélemy de La Chapelle Montabourlet.

Music by Bach

What a way to crown the actual itinerant bit of the Itinéraire! A selection – very carefully picked – of movements for Bach’s Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV1014-19, performed with real passion and love for the music. This is the one that split the critics present, as tuning was not always 100% – but intent was. And while Zanisi and Nuti’s two-disc recording on the Arcana label of all six sonatas complete is miraculous, there was that much more spirit live.

This was a bit like the Italian tour earlier, but around Bach. The first piece showed us immediately what a fine duo this is. Giulia Nuti is one of the finest harpsichordists I have heard (the very first movement we heard, from BWV 1017, revealed this from the off) while Zanisi showed a real sense of resilience and wiry strength. Fascinating to hear that, when Zanisi changed her dynamic to piano/pianissimo, how the whole world of Bach changed (the harpsichord’s dynamic remaining constant, of course). While the Andante of BWV 1014 was a touch less secure technically, it remained fascinating, holding a heart-stopping duet between violin and the harpsichordist’s right-hand. The tempo was perfect, too. In contrast, the finale of the fourth sonata (E major, BWV 1016) is a regular hailstorm of notes, exciting and involving.

From a last movement to a first: that of the F minor Sonata, BWV 1018, a Largo that opens with an extended harpsichord solo, the violin ushering itself in in its lowest register, resonant, musing, Zanisi’s sound throaty, almost conspiratorial. The slowly evolving counterpoint was a deeply moving. Fabulous that they should then play the Cantabile, BWV 1019a, based on an aria from the cantata BWV 120, Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille. As the harpsichord takes the main interest, the violin adds its own off-the-cuff comments – and how Zanisi’s violin spoke.

Finally, the Allegro assai from the second sonata, full of vim. There was the occasional timing issue here – this was the fifth time the ladies had played this programme in one day, one should remember. Still, they weren’t too tired to play an encore (the Adagio from the G major).

VI – Suonare in Aria: La Guilde des Mercenaires. Château de Jaurias.

La Guilde des Mercenaires © Jean-Michel Bale

Music by Monteverdi, Buonamente, Josquin des Prez, Scheidt, Holborne, Roland de Lassus, Thoinot Arbeau and Praetorius

There is nothing like an al fresco concert at a chateau with its spectacular views, its opportunities for spatial play and even the odd singer to pop out of a window. Built around 1780 by a musketeer in the guard of King Louis XVI, Château de Jaurais is idyllic.

La Guilde des Mercenaires comprises Benoit Tainturier (cornett, recorder), Jérémie Papasergio (bassoon, serpent); Simen Van Mechelen (trombones, flutes); Claire McIntyre (trombones, flutes), Michèle Claude (percussion) and Adrien Mabire (cornetts, flutes and host).

Certainly Mabire realised plenty of energy in the presentation was required after a long day. Hearing this line-up (with the addition of a serpent, amongst other things) was the greatest tonic one could hope for. The only criticism I can come up with is that in the Scheidt it would have been good to have the two melody instruments on either side of the ensemble as opposed to next to each other, given the amount of imitation they indulge in.

From the solemn, severe beauty of Holborne’s Pavan, The Funerals, to the effervescence of Praetorius’s dances from Terpsichore, this was a gorgeously varied programme, the perfect tonic. A fabulous close to a day of remarkably high musical standards.

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