Handel in the snow? There can't be many Baroque music festivals that lie further north than Trondheim’s Barokkfest, which takes place later this month. Lying on the southern shore of Trondheim Fjord, at the mouth of the River Nidelva, the medieval city was founded as a Viking trading post in 997, serving as the capital city of Norway until 1217. Shrouded in the darkness of an Arctic winter, the city is lit up by world class performers at the end of each January as the Baroque festival opens, taking listeners to music infused with Mediterranean and Latin American warmth.

Trondheim © Darolti Dan
© Darolti Dan

Lighting the winter darkness is appropriate, as the theme of the 2019 festival is “chiaroscuro”, connecting the treatment of light and shade in Baroque paintings with the highly contrasting styles of Baroque music, ranging from devotional simplicity to the highly florid. This connection is strengthened through talks by specialists on art and music and chamber music performances in some of Trondheim’s “secret rooms” in 18th-century palaces. Visitors can also head to the Ringve National Museum of Musical Instruments, which houses harpsichords and string instruments by some of the 17th and 18th centuries finest makers.

Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim © Michelle Maria
Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim
© Michelle Maria
The festival is centred around the city’s Nidaros Cathedral – the northernmost gothic cathedral in the world. Built from 1070 to 1300, over the burial site of King Olav II, the cathedral is Norway’s most important Gothic monument, an historically important site of Christian pilgrimage during the Middle Ages.

Le Poème harmonique opens the festival with a performance of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Completed in 1736 in a Franciscan monastery in the final weeks before his untimely death, at the age of just 26, the Stabat Mater is one of Pergolesi’s most profound works, even if it was criticised later in the 18th century for its overly operatic style. Its first movement – often performed as a duet of intertwined voices, but taken with chorus by conductor Vincent Dumestre – is tremendously moving. Dumestre leads his renowned French orchestra and choir in a new version of the score, placing it in the original liturgical setting it would have received at its premiere, allowing Nidaros’ gothic vaults to echo to the sounds first heard in Naples.

From Italy we head to Spain for viola da gamba player Fahmi Alqhai’s programme with Accademia del Piacere where they explore the roots of dances such as the fandango and the tarantella. It was Spaniard Jordi Savall who raised the profile of the viola da gamba sevenfold when his playing featured in the film Tous les matins du monde, the biopic about French composer and viola player Marin Marais. Alqhai is very much seen as the heir to Savall’s gamba “throne” and his playing allies energy with the instrument’s soulful timbre.

Rachel Podger © Theresa Pewal
Rachel Podger
© Theresa Pewal
There is a Spanish connection too in the Nordic Baroque Orchestra’s programme, led by celebrated violinist Rachel Podger. Miguel de Cervantes’ great novel Don Quixote was the inspiration for Georg Philipp Telemann’s orchestral suite, Burlesque de Quixotte. It contains some of Telemann’s most descriptive, programmatic music, including the knight errant’s bumbling assault on some windmills and his galloping steed, Rosinante. Podger has also chosen the suite from Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen – an entertainment partially based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and Francesco Geminiani’s arrangement of his teacher Corelli’s “La follia”. Her programme opens with Johann Sebastian Bach’s festive Orchestral Suite no. 1 in C major, dance pieces in French Baroque style, full of joy. Podger is sure to bring her infectious enthusiasm to this delightful line-up of Baroque “from the Golden Age”.

Paul Agnew was for many years known to international audiences as a tenor, specialising in Baroque repertoire. In more recent times, he has taken to the podium as frequent conductor of Les Arts Florissants. In Trondheim, he conducts the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra’s own Baroque ensemble in a programme dominated by George Frideric Handel’s Dixit Dominus in G minor, a vivid setting of Psalm 110. This was an early work, composed when Handel was still living in Italy, and is bursting with youthful energy, a real showpiece for both singers and orchestral players. Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser is the soloist. The programme also includes Handel’s Salve Regina, an antiphon composed around the same time, and Antonio Vivaldi’s Kyrie in G minor, which sets two “cori” (orchestras and respective four-part choirs) in opposition.

In neighbouring Sweden, the Uppsala Library houses a volume of Latin-American Baroque music. Printed in Venice in 1556, the Canciero de Uppsala contained examples of early villancicos, a Spanish musical form sung with or without accompaniment which was adopted in its South American colonies in the 16th and 17th centuries. Peter Pontvik, a Swede who grew up in Uruguay, leads a programme – entitled “Baroque Jungle Book” – drawn from this volume with his Ensemble Villancico.  It promises to be a riotous festival finale!

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This preview was sponsored by Barokkfest Tidlig Musikk