Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Accentus Austria in the 2012 Israel Festival

Musical director Thomas Wimmer

A visiting group to the 2012 Israel Festival, “Accentus Austria”, under the auspices of the Austrian Cultural Forum Tel Aviv, performed a concert titled “Aria Viennesa. A Melting Pot of Cultures” May 27th in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre. Established in 1998 in Vienna by lutenist and violone-player Thomas Wimmer, it comprises a total of 13 members, the number of players taking part in any one concert depending on each individual program. Directed by Wimmer, “Accentus Austria” has made a deep study of early Spanish music and its influence throughout Europe, this research covering the oral tradition of Sephardic Romances, from art- and popular music from around 1500 to sacred- and secular music of the 16th- and 17th centuries. Another area of the ensemble’s repertoire is music of the 16th- and 17th centuries in the Austrian Empire. The latter was the focus of the concert we heard at the Jerusalem concert. Born in Austria in 1961, Thomas Wimmer studied the viola da gamba in Vienna; due to his interest in music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, he has also been involved in playing such instruments as the Renaissance viol, the vihuela d’arco, medieval fiddle and the rebec.

The evening’s program included music of Vienna and east of Vienna, addressing the eastern Habsburg Empire of the 17th century, with its Italian-style music on one hand, and, on the other, Austrian, Hungarian, Bohemian and Polish music that was played in the streets, with the Turkish influence from the time the Ottoman Empire conducted war against the Habsburgs and their Hungarian territories in the mid-16th century. The latter influence was apparent in the first group of pieces – traditional Hungarian-Turkish music of the 17th century. Accompanied by lute, koboz (a medieval lute associated with the singing of epic songs), flute, with violins and viola held as the fiddle - on the shoulder - and percussion, we heard singer Tamás Kiss in traditional narrative songs, his powerful, bright tenor voice and theatrical approach leaving the listener enchanted:
'When you hear the sound of the koboz,
Your brightness will vanish,
Your delight will change intp grief,
And tears will moisten your beautiful eyes...'
This music was clearly non-European in concept, mode and in the unison doubling of melodies; flautist Michael Posch, ornamenting the same melodies with much invention and agility, promised an evening of masterful flute- and recorder playing!

The ensemble took us back into the Habsburg court to hear two dance suites by Austrian violinist and prolific composer Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (1623-1680). The leading Austrian composer of instrumental music before Biber, we heard two of Schmelzer’s suites, some written for allegorical pageants in which members of the royal family took part. “Accentus Austria” gave expression to the music’s elegance, invention and easy charm, with percussionist Wolfgang Reithofer adding color and, here and there, rustic charm. But were we hearing a typically European Baroque-style suite? Certainly not. In addition to the usual dances, the movements included programmatically-titled pieces and decidedly folk-flavored pieces. And why were we to detect these traits in the music of Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741), Austrian organist, court- and church composer and theorist, whose book “Gradus ad Parnassum” (Vienna 1725) has been instrumental in our counterpoint studies at music academies? Fux was born into a peasant family, but it seems that the major influence of folk- and non-European music on him would have come from Vienna’s occupation by the Turks in 1683; this would also have meant familiarity with Turkish percussion instruments. Fux’ music represents early engagement with Turkish music. “Accentus Austria” performed two suites by Fux - Partita K329 and the Symphonia ex C. The latter, referred to by Wimmer as “Turkish music of war and countryside”, began with a military drum beat, the following sections alternating between European Baroque musical language and modal country dances with their unison melodies. Played effectively by the consort, these works had the audience sitting at the edge of its seats, rethinking its concept of Austrian Baroque chamber music!

No less interesting was Canzona terza by Bartolomé Selma y Salaverde, performed by Michael Posch on soprano recorder, with harpsichord and violone continuo. Salaverde, born in Spain some time between 1580 and 1690, was an Augustine monk. A virtuoso bassoonist it seems, and well familiar with the northern Italian styles of the day (his name appeared in Venice), Salaverde’s music is known solely from one manuscript “Primo libro Canzoni, Fantasie et Correnti da suonar a 1, 2, 3, 4 voci con Basso Continuo” (1638) housed in the University of Wroklaw, Poland (Breslau in Habsburg times) - connecting culturally with the Austrian content of the concert. The collection comprises several short instrumental pieces; it includes tempo markings although there is little written there to specify instrumentation. In Posch’s hands, Canzona terza, with its variety of figuration, many moods and contrasting sections, was a celebration of fine musicianship, agility and technical fluency.

Following a traditional 17th century Hungarian song “Budát, ó Hunnia” sung by Tamás Kiss, accompanying himself on a large hurdy-gurdy, the concert ended with pieces from Codex Caioni (Kájoni) and Codex Vietorisz (c.1680), both manuscripts including arrangements of songs, dances, suites, etc., with scoring for instrumental ensembles. The Codex Caioni, showing the great diversity of influences existing in Transylvania, was named after the Franciscan organist Johannes Caioni, who spent 30 years transcribing 17th century Hungarian, Rumanian and gypsy songs and dances, Italian-, German and French compositions and his own works. An organ-builder and restorer, publisher and printer, theologian, philosopher and practitioner of herbal medicine, Caioni was the first Transylvanian musician to win European reputation. The whimsical song “Lepus intra sata quiescit”, the hurdy-gurdy reminding us of its folk origins, tells of a hare under threat from everyone – king, priests, monks, peasants and soldiers; it may possibly represent the “artist” under public attack. Humor and joie-de-vivre characterized the dances ending the program; they were varied in instrumental color and combination, their style spanning from a dignified Saraband to jovial, earthy melodies.

The concert threw light on some interesting aspects of European music. “Accentus Austria” is a high quality ensemble, boasting several fine players; violinists Ulli Engel and Monika Toth and their viola counterpart Ivan Becka were excellent in their double roles. As to the evocative historical songs and nostalgic ballads sung and accompanied by Tamás Kiss, they created much interest:
'Oh what a pearl of beauty is the castle of Esztergom,
Lined by waves!
Like the prettiness of my beloved.
But far am I and full of grief,
As from the heart of my true love
I am separated...'

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