Shock of the old

Each July, a sleepy town in south-west France is filled with the strains of period instruments. Andrew Clarke reports from an early-music wonderland
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

With the Proms in full flow, there's plenty of music to sate even the most demanding appetite. But for the early-music fan, there's little to beat the exciting discoveries to be had at the annual Saintes festival - or Les Académies Musicales de Saintes, to give it its proper title. Every July, the leading names in the period-instrument field are drawn here, not just for the kudos of taking part in this much-celebrated musical feast, but for the opportunity to share their passion with an interested, informed and appreciative audience.

With the Proms in full flow, there's plenty of music to sate even the most demanding appetite. But for the early-music fan, there's little to beat the exciting discoveries to be had at the annual Saintes festival - or Les Académies Musicales de Saintes, to give it its proper title. Every July, the leading names in the period-instrument field are drawn here, not just for the kudos of taking part in this much-celebrated musical feast, but for the opportunity to share their passion with an interested, informed and appreciative audience.

It's not that Saintes, unlike other, larger European festivals, can boast of fine concert halls or wealthy audiences. It's setting is an otherwise sleepy little town on the edge of cognac country, in south-west France, once the thriving capital of the old province of the Saintonges that made the most of its siting on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Intervening centuries have seen its fortunes decline, but Saintes has been left with a legacy of Roman ruins (a well-preserved amphitheatre), an imposing - if heavily reconstructed - cathedral, and two of the finest Romanesque churches in an area rich in architectural splendours.

It's one of these buildings, the 12th-century Abbaye aux Dames, that acts as the focus for the Académies Musicales, with up to four concerts a day taking place over the space of a dozen days within its variegated white stone walls. Into its domed interior are packed performers, press and public, all focused on the sublime sounds of music that can range from motets to Messiaen.

The latter may seem a surprising choice for a festival that has, over the past 32 years, built up an unassailable reputation for the finest performances of music from the Renaissance, Baroque and Romantic periods. The uncompromising French modernist may not appear to sit easily alongside "authentic" Bach, Beethoven or even Bruckner. But it's part of the genius of Saintes that such a seemingly bizarre juxtaposition should not only work, but work brilliantly.

Granted, Messiaen's Des canyons aux étoiles has its sublime moments, but one might be forgiven for assuming that it's hardly a work your average early-music specialist is likely to cherish. Yet the rapturous response to an illuminating reading by the Orchestre Poitou-Charentes told a different story. They may have been "only" the local regional orchestra, but under Marek Janowski they proved themselves well able to tackle this monumental paean to the wonder of God's creation as evidenced in Utah's canyons. Jean François Heisser forsook his position as the orchestra's director to give a bravura performance of the taxing solo piano part, while the orchestra responded with playing of agility and power, the hugely augmented wind section shining with particular brilliance.

Only Saintes could follow such an explosive and, well, downright noisy performance with a late-night concert by one of Europe's leading Renaissance vocal groups - the Huelgas-Ensemble, conducted by Paul Van Nevel. Leaving the confines of the Abbaye and traipsing across town, pausing only to marvel at the gentle reflections in the river Charente, the audience had to make its way to Saintes's St-Pierre cathedral, a night-time stroll that afforded enough time to adjust to the different demands of 16th-century chromaticism.

Van Nevel is a mainstay of Saintes, one of a trio of Belgians (along with the fortepianist/conductor Jos van Immerseel and the festival's founder, the conductor Philippe Herreweghe) who were at the core of this year's music-making. Everyone knows that a Huelgas-Ensemble concert is special, but the second of its two performances this year was, as Van Nevel enthused afterwards, one of its very best. It was a typically thought-provoking and challenging programme, one that aimed to show how later Renaissance composers such as Lassus and De Wert sought to move beyond polyphony into yet more rarefied and subtle modes of expression, rediscovering the long-dormant modes of ancient Greece and infusing their works with the most complex chromaticism.

The effect, with Van Nevel and his superb singers arranged in a circle and the audience seated about them in a square, was quite stunning. These works delight in the discovery of a new musical language, and Van Nevel took us from the medieval polyphony of Clemens non Papa ("Qui consolabatur me") to the avant-garde soundworld of Lassus (two of the Prophetiae Sibyllarum). Under his direction, these were miracles of control and judgement, the Huelgas's voices beautifully pure.

Perhaps most remarkable of all was a typically obscure Van Nevel discovery, a setting of "Heu me Domine" by Vicento Lusitano that was a quite breathtaking exercise in the use of half tones, the voices rising and falling almost imperceptibly, seeming to hang ethereally in mid-air in the hushed darkness of the cathedral. This was music from a different planet - or at least sounding as if it belonged not to the 16th century but to the 21st. It's difficult to imagine where these composers could have gone after such extreme outpourings, and indeed, for 400 years, the style did prove to be a cul-de-sac. Perhaps it needs an audience that can accept the challenges of Ligeti or Messiaen to reconnect with this astonishing repertoire.

There were challenges - and rewards - aplenty elsewhere in the festival, of course. An inspired piece of programming matched the very English Peter Phillips with the Flemish Collegium Vocale Ghent for a concert of Byrd pieces that was a fascinating meeting of two great vocal traditions. Jos van Immerseel, who earlier in the festival had excelled in Mozart sonatas on the fortepiano, fired the novice "period" players of the Jeune Orchestre Atlantique to give the performances of their lives in breakneck accounts of Schubert's Second and Beethoven's Seventh symphonies. And the highly regarded pianist Alexandre Tharaud had amazed in Bach, Couperin and Ravel. The lunchtime diet of Bach cantatas during the last five days of the festival provided a rich feast indeed, with one of the four soloists, the English soprano Carolyn Sampson, winning over listeners with her exquisite voice and radiant presence. As if her captivating Bach wasn't enough to justify the praise that has been heaped on her of late, she enthralled Saintes' post-concert revellers with relaxed renditions of jazz standards well into the night.

If Sampson was the darling of this year's festival, the German fortepianist Andreas Staier was perhaps its most outstanding single presence. His two concerts underlined why he is one of the most important pianists of our times. He is a player of exceptional insight and vigour, yet with an agility and wit that make hearing him a constant delight. In a programme of Beethoven sonatas for piano and cello, the humidity caused considerable problems for the gifted cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras. But the technical obstacles only enhanced how like a roller-coaster ride these fiendishly difficult pieces are, particularly the remarkable Op5 No2 in G minor. Staier's past as a song accompanist made him an ideal chamber partner, always alert and sensitive, forceful in argument or gentle in agreement.

A few days earlier, Staier had stamped his authority in a concert that comprised a first half of Mozart solo works and a second-half piano concerto - Beethoven's Third, with Herreweghe conducting his crack period-instrument Orchestre de Champs-Elysées in a performance that revealed textures and relationships anew. Staier's opening Allegro was full of the requisite brio, an outward-looking tour de force followed by a more rapt, introspective Largo and a menacing finale. This was playing of remarkable emotional and intellectual power, qualities that were stamped all over the earlier Mozart. The K457 Sonata, another work in C minor, and its companion piece, the Fantasia K475, represent the composer at his most inspired. Staier brilliantly highlighted the improvisatory aspects of the latter, while relishing the violence of the sonata's outer movements and delighting in its beautiful, tender Adagio.

Meeting old friends and new; finding fresh ways of listening to familiar music; unearthing undreamt of new repertoire... it's all part of the magic of Saintes.

The Académies Musicales de Saintes takes place every July (033 05 46 97 48 30; www.festival-saintes.org). Ryanair flies daily from Stansted to La Rochelle and Poitiers

Comments