The stage on the Grote Zaal of the TivoliVredenburg, Utrecht was joyously decked with boxes of yellow and orange flowers, which seemed in keeping with the largely warm and kindly character of this charming programme. This year’s Festival Oude Muziek Utrecht took the theme of the Habsburg courts: a fertile theme, since the Habsburgs provided artistic patronage to many musicians. While the heart of the powerful Habsburg dynasty was in Austria, its influence reached all over Europe, and especially into Italy through several successive generations of intermarriage with the Medicis.

L'Arpeggiata's programme, led from the theorbo by Christina Pluhar, explored the sacred and instrumental concerti of two Italians at the Viennese court of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III: Kapellmeister Antonio Bertali (c1605-1669), and his vice Kapellmeister, frequent musical collaborator and eventual successor Giovanni Felice Sances (c1600-1679). Ferdinand III was himself a composer, and helped develop the careers of a number of important musicians of the period.

The sweet, stately Ciaccona à 7 by priest and composer Philippe Jacob Rittler (c1637-1690) opened the concert graciously. The ensemble took just a little time to come completely together, though the warm, bright character of the ensemble sound was apparent from the outset. The instrumental sound was warm and relaxed, which provided a foil to the very fine divisions provided by the violin and cornetto sections (authoritatively led by Veronika Skuplik and Bruce Dickey) in Antonio Bertali’s Salve Regina à 9 and Sonata à 9 à due cori. That relaxation occasionally verged on imprecision here and there throughout the concert, though this did not diminish the audience’s enjoyment of the overall sound, which was sweet and full.

Organist Haru Kitamika’s playing gave flow to the evening with improvised preludes in between pieces, as the ensemble reconfigured itself several times throughout the course of the concert. Sances’ elegant Letanie della Beata Vergine, to my mind the loveliest of the choral pieces, gave the best of the evening’s ensemble-singing. The vocal ensemble as a whole performed delightfully. The individual voices of this ensemble displayed very different qualities, to the extent that this sometimes affected the balance slightly, though this combination also allowed for plentiful moments of beauty from individual singers.

Especial mention must be made of tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, whose rich and agile voice combined technical panache and musical subtlety to really excellent effect in two duets. Giovanni Felice Sances’ Salvum me fac, with tenor Cyril Auvity, was plaintive and moving, both tenors skilfully making much of Sances’ languishing suspensions.  

The duet Vulnerasti cor meum, sung by Toro and the excellent soprano Anna Reinhold, was meltingly touching, capturing the conflation of romantic, sensual and spiritual love that characterises so much seventeenth-century sacred music. All the duets and solo pieces were supported by a solid continuo section, comprised variously of lute and theorbo, gambas, chamber organ, harp and violone. As a whole, this concert showed just how much rich and lovely repertoire from this court is available to be explored, and the ensemble brought it to the audience’s attention with conviction and delight.