Lost Tongues and Illegible Scripts

The annual mid-winter early music festival at the Konzerthaus, Resonanzen, celebrated its 20th anniversary, unlocking the doors of musical archives and presenting forgotten treasures

The Unicorn Ensemble

The Unicorn Ensemble is just one of the countless acts who performed at the 25 events of the revered Resonanzen Festival | Photo: Wiener Konzerthaus

Early music musicians are often far more than mere instrumentalists. They are historians, archivists and sleuths, musicologists, music theorists and improvisers. They are conversant in lost tongues and read illegible scripts. Searching for forgotten musical treasures, they are at home in the storerooms of museums, in the choir lofts of Gothic churches, and in the manuscript vaults of libraries, with their steel doors and humidity-controlled rooms. And when a treasure is found, they find a way to play it. Such musicians are fanatical in a way others are not.

There is something fanatical about those who listen to early music, too. They are not content with another rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 6th, or even of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. No, they love music that follows unfamiliar pathways. Their ears are at home with medieval harmonies, with the curious buzzing and plinking of ancient instruments. They know what a sackbut looks and sounds like, also a theorbo.

For the last twenty years, the Resonanzen Festival at the Konzerthaus has put these two groups of people into the same room every evening for over a week, and the result has been remarkable. Again this year, the January Resonanzen concerts were high-powered and enthusiastic, full of discoveries and revelations. And, above all, they were beautiful.

The term “early music” can be used to describe the music composed in Europe from the dawn of musical notation, around the year 850 when neumes were developed to remember Gregorian chants, to the late Baroque, which began to fade away with the death of J.S. Bach in 1750. That’s nine centuries of music. Which means there are still plenty of treasures to be found.

To ensure that these discoveries are not forgotten, and to keep the fan club growing, the festival concerts are recorded and broadcast live by the ORF (Austrian Broadcasting Company). Every year a CD set of the festival comes out in a matter of months. They are still available all the way back to 1996.

To somehow organize the vastness of nearly  a millennium of music, every year the festival has a different motto. This year it was “In Vienna”. With that, at first glance the many Italian names in the programme seemed odd. But over the centuries many Italian composers migrated here, a city that even in the 15th century had a significant musical reputation.

The Bologna ensemble Mala Punica sang motets by Johannes Ciconia (1370–1412) and his contemporaries: Gorgeously complex, their lines of counterpoint pushed against one another. The leaping and hopping of conductor Pedro Memelsdorff was a bit distracting, but at least showed his zeal. They were accompanied by a “Schachtbrett”, a precursor to the harpsichord, which, as we learn, was invented by a Viennese physician in the 1390s. Like a twitter, the instrument spread all over the continent within, well not minutes, but a decade.

The Concerto Italiano (under Rinaldo Alessandrini) brought a Stabat Mater and a mass by Antonio Maria Bononcini, who came to Vienna in 1699. Expressive and sincere, Bononcini’s music is a find. The yearly banquet concert, transforming the lobbies of the Konzerthaus after the concert into a feast of communal ingestion, was delicious – both the food and the singing of Roberta Invernizzi.

The Ensemble Unicorn brought songs by Viennese minnesingers (of course about love, but also about harridans and feckless female demands). Festival favourites Hiro Kurosaki and Wolfgang Glüxam returned to life violin sonatas recently unearthed at Vienna’s “Minoriten” Seminary, playing with accustomed joy directly from photocopies of the manuscripts. And Jordi Savall, mainstay of the festival, concluded the glorious week with his ensemble Le Concert des Nations.

The early music boom in Vienna began in the 1950s with Harnoncourt, Melkus and Clemencic, and burst into bloom during the 1980s. Based on something called “historically informed performance”, early music players strive for “authenticity”, whose definition continues to evolve. There was a time when an “authentic” Baroque violinist would never use vibrato, or when out-of-tuneness was simply considered genuine. Luckily, those narrow ideas have long been left behind.

The best concert this year was the grand opening, with Fabio Biondi’s Europa Galante (playing both with vibrato and in tune) performing Antonio Vivaldi’s last opera, L’oracolo in Messenia. Despite Stravinsky’s alleged snide remark that Vivaldi only wrote one piece in many variations, I have never experienced Vivaldi as anything but brilliant, ear-catching, and exciting, with vocal fireworks and furiously fast strings.

Although L’oracolo was premièred in Venice in 1738, Vivaldi, feeling the musical fashions shifting in Italy, set sights on a performance in Vienna. In 1741 he travelled here with his assistant and likely lover, a soprano. But unfortunately that summer he died. A small historical note: Probably singing in the choir at his funeral was nine-year-old Joseph Haydn. The soprano, though, managed to have her Antonio’s opera performed in Vienna after all, in the winter of 1742.

This time, we heard a moment in Vivaldi’s L’oracolo that will also go down in history, when Julia Lezhneva sang. The 21-year-old Russian soprano, with her blond braids wrapped around her head, has a voice like none I have ever heard. With absolute poise and a faint sweet smile, she sang the Oracle with effortless, bell-like perfection. And the best: She didn’t force herself onto Vivaldi, she became his music. I was fascinated and enthralled, and hope that Vivaldi was listening from somewhere.               ÷

Resonanzen Festival CDs available at:

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