MUSIC / Glad to be grey men in grey suits: Stephen Johnson on the opening of the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music

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The Independent Culture
Concerts, like football matches, are normally games of two halves. But rarely have the two halves been so sharply contrasted as in the concert by the Estonian ensemble Hortus Musicus last Saturday - the opening night of the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music. The appearance of the players in Part 1 was not promising: grey suits, grey shirts and grey bow-ties. The music chosen - medieval Anons from the Baltic, plus Arvo Part - was on the whole grey too, with the gorgeous exception of an anonymous solo setting of a devotional O Maria, nicely, if not quite gorgeously, sung by the soprano Helle Mustonen. The playing often seemed as low-key as the dress sense; and at one point in the lugubrious opening organ voluntary one of the musicians cleared his throat noisily - not an encouraging sign.

Whatever the players felt about this part of the programme, I found my doubts growing. What did Part gain from being played on medieval instruments and mixed with medieval (I almost said genuine medieval) music? It only made his archaism sound more self-conscious and musically anaemic than ever. Performed on wobbly crumhorns, shawms, sackbut and early strings, with a continuous, slowly pounding drum beat, the popular Fratres lost its familiar atmospheric sheen and limped along grotesquely. The surprise is that Part actually conceived Fratres for this very group; the violin and piano version will never sound the same again.

The reappearance of Hortus Musicus after the interval was an even bigger surprise. Here were the same musicians, but transformed in brightly coloured doublet and hose. Music and music-making were transformed too. Songs and dances by Praetorius, Lassus and Pierre Attaignant ensured a richer musical substance, and as the subject of the texts turned to love, Hortus Musicus suddenly warmed into life. The effect was like summer after a long Nordic winter. It was hard to remember performances of any of Praetorius's ever-popular Terpsichore dances that sounded - and looked - more enthusiastic and abandoned. The singers, too, acquired a new vitality, as if they had taken the spirit of the words, not just the notes, to heart.

Granted, the concert's title, 'Music from Hansa Cities', did seem to fit this second half rather loosely (though at least some of this music may have been known in the Baltic regions in its own day, thanks to the invention of printing). Nor did anything in this concert fit snugly into the festival's 'baroque' category, although Praetorius certainly seems to be heading in that direction. Still, Lufthansa's extension of its boundaries to include neglected earlier music is welcome, and the second half of this first concert did at least make a rousing introduction to this year's events.