Making Music, Working Wood

Resonanzen 2010, the annual trade fair for traditional instruments and their makers

The grey statue of Beethoven in the Konzerthaus seemed to look askance, turning perhaps an even deafer ear to the surrounding babble as the venerable concert hall was turned into a fairground, a carnival of traditional instruments and their makers.

Lutes with backs and sides of maple, fronts of European spruce and strings of gut, therboes made of ivory and ebony and Spanish viheulas obscured the sight of the master from Bonn. In the Schubert Saal, virginals inspired by Gheerdinck in 1605, harpsichords inspired by Zell in 1728, and Bentside spinets inspired by Goujou in 1753 were on display, while violinmaker Hagen Schiffler and luthier Benoit Gervais demonstrated their instruments. In the Berio Saal other craftsmen worked on the violins-in-progress while others displayed the different kinds of wood: maple, pear, willow, plum, yew and elm.

It was a fitting begin for Resonanzen, the annual festival of Early and Baroque music at the Konzerthaus each January, to start with an exhibition of historical instruments. After all, the revolution in sensibilities of the last decades began with an insistence on the use of “originals.”

Still, the instrument makers insisted that they were producing instruments for the modern ear. Gary Sothwell from Nottingham (UK) explained that despite years of making drawings and photographs of old instruments, taking their measurements and restoring them in Nuremberg, Leipzig, Paris, Oxford, London and New York, the simple truth is that “we can never know what they were like.” All that can be done is to “make an educated guess” about what the originals might have sounded like. At the same time, he explained, “our ears are different now” and it is necessary to respond to this change.

Dutch maker Bert Dekker concentrates on the viola da gamba, a predecessor of the violin family held between the legs (hence the name “da gamba”) like a cello. While making his treble, tenor and other sizes, he reaches for what he described as the “original idea.” One has to study the originals, but at the end of the day, the choice of the shape of the belly, its thickness and the inclination of the neck is dependant upon the makers own interpretation.

Having heard the tales of the makers, it was all the more exciting to hear the instruments in action.

Perhaps too much had been expected of the performances Ton Kopman (cembalo) and Jordi Savall (viola de gamba) of works by Marin Marais (1656-1728), De Sainte-Colombe, père et fils, Louis Couperin (1626-1661), Jacques Duphly (1715-1789) and Antoine Fouqueray (1672-1745). Having listened to recordings by these two fine musicians beforehand this reviewer could not imagine them performing together, so different are their respective approaches. Sadly these fears were justified. The different styles and philosophies of the masters conflicted and constrained more than anything else. If Jordi Savall, with the more muted flow of the viola da gamba, did his utmost to accommodate himself to the brilliant sound of the precise Kopman, the cembalo player failed to give the gamba sufficient space to develop his own highly idiosyncratic improvisations.

More joyful was the performance by La Simphonie du Marais conducted by Hugo Reyne that fulfilled all expectations. Few recordings have impressed this reviewer as much as theirs of Henry Desmarest’s La Diane de Fointainbleu. On the first night the orchestra and choir performed works by Guillaume Bouzignac, Louis Constantin, Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704), Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) and Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726). On the second they performed works by Jean-Baptiste Lully and Jean Philippe Rameau (1683-1764).

If some might have criticized this youthful ensemble of being callow they more than compensated for it by their clarity, exquisitely fine sensibility and sheer joyous youthful buoyancy. Especially worthy of commendation were the sopranos Camille Poul and Anne Magouet.

The second concert made up of works by Lully and Rameau was not as successful; while performed with innate good taste and a sense of balance, particularly in the Rameau, it lacked either theatricality or drama.

The last concert attended was by Gambe di Legno, a viola de gamba ensemble from Italy including Paolo Zuccheri, Francesco Galligioni and Carlo Zanardi. The pieces, such as works by Gioseffo Zarlino (1517-1590), Ciprano de Rore (1515-1565) and Claudio Monterverdi (1567-1643) were intricate and subtle, and nearly died in the small space of the subdued elegance of the Mozart Saal. The ensemble seemed uncertain of what effect, if any, it was having.

The evening was saved however by the extraordinary performance by soprano Elena Biscuola, who’s clear, free and assured voice electrified the audience and helped build to an intoxicatingly dramatic climax. She left this reviewer looking forward to Resonanzen 2011.

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