Seeing a festival listed as “Early music” doesn’t necessarily tell you what you’re getting, since the term gets used to span anything from medieval and renaissance music to the late baroque. The 2017 Innsbrucker Festwochen der Alten Musik (in English: Innsbruck Festival of Early Music) spans those extremes, but with a strong focus on the period in the middle, as composers who started in the renaissance tradition began to evolve their style into what would become the baroque.

<i>Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria</i> from Oslo © Erik Berg
Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria from Oslo
© Erik Berg

One of the chiefs amongst these evolutionnaries was Claudio Monteverdi, whose 450th anniversary prompts a substantial offering of his music in this year’s festival. For a concentrated dose of some of history’s greatest vocal writing, the festival offers the sacred – his 1610 Vespers, with Rinaldo Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano – on Friday 11th August in the Jesuit Church, surrounded on each side (and on the 14th) by his late opera Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, a gripping retelling of  the closing chapters of Homer’s Odyssey, to be played in the Landestheater. Conductor Alessandro de Marchi aims to recapture some of the improvisatory performance style of Monteverdi’s time, while director Ole Anders Tandberg asserts that he will be utterly faithful to the text. Less faithfully but in the interests of modern enjoyment, an excuse has been found to insert two of Monteverdi’s greatest madrigals, Zefiro torna and Lamento della ninfa.  Later in the festival, the story is retold for children with singers and puppets by German specialists Taschenoper (“pocket opera”) Lübeck.

Pygmalion © Stefan Gloede
© Stefan Gloede
While Il ritorno d’Ulisse is focused on the text and the story, the following week’s opera offering on August 20-21 promises to be focused on the spectacle: Rameau’s “Acte de ballet” Pygmalion is performed by Les Cavatines, who specialise in the revival of early opera-ballets, with the expert backing of Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques: the Rameau is complemented by works from other composers of the period: Louis-Nicolas Clerambault’s La muse de l’Opéra and Jean-Féry Rebel’s Les Caractères de la Danse.

Alessandro de Marchi © Rupert Larl
Alessandro de Marchi
© Rupert Larl
Rare opera follows on August 22 in the shape of The noble-minded Octavia, a 1705 opera by Reinhard Keiser written in riposte to Handel’s Nero. Keiser is largely forgotten today, but he was a major force in his day, and ten numbers from Octavia are well remembered since they were lifted by Handel for use in his own Agrippina and other operas.

Several concerts of sacred music look enticing. The festival opens on Sunday 6th August with a concert of choral music from St Mark’s in Venice, there’s more Bach from soprano Nuria Rial in Ambras Castle on August 17th, while some of the oldest sacred music is explored by Pedro Memelsdorff and Mala Punica in a 19th August concert of music from the Codex Faenza, a collection of melodies from the 14th and 15th centuries which Memelsdorff found to have been written over the top of much older music: he will be performing some of this reconstructed music. A more dubiously sacred piece appears in the shape of Alessandro Stradella’s oratorio San Giovanni Battista, a re-telling of the salacious biblical tale of Salome ordering the death of St John the Baptist, which provides a chance to hear the top class countertenor voice of Lawrence Zazzo, who seems to consistently our reviewers every time we see him. Alessandro de Marchi conducts.

Going back to the secular side: the 2016 Cesti Competition audience choice winner Sophie Rennert tackles love songs by Monteverdi, Peri and others, Ensemble Cinquecento offer motets by de Lassus and others,  while Musica Antiqua Latina tackle the crossover between Turkish and Western music.

While the majority of the festival is focused on the voice, there is one important instrumental offering: a solid intravenous fix of Bach in the Hofburg on August 23rd from violin star Isabelle Faust and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. The St Nicholas Chapel in Ambras Castle also plays host to an instrumental lunchtime concert on August 19th, where violinist Veronika Skuplik and lutenist Andreas Arend will be taking the audience on a ride through 17th century Italian music, while Peter Waldner explores Renaissance and early baroque keyboard music in a late night concert at the Hofkirche on August 13th.

Christina Pluhar © Marco Borggreve
Christina Pluhar
© Marco Borggreve
The festival closes with two more operatic offerings. The first moves us from Ithaca to another classical island, Naxos, and the stranded Ariadne: in contrast to Richard Strauss’s lengthy exposition, a concert on August 24th in Ambras Castle, a Renaissance palace set high in the hills above the city, offers three varied and considerably shorter cantatas from Haydn, Georg Beda and Johann Adolph Scheibe.

Finally, Sunday 27 August sees the final concert of the Cesti singing competition, where you can hear some of the early opera stars of tomorrow in the Landeskonservatorium.

We'll close by mentioning an amuse-bouche which kicks off the festival: the 54th Ambras Castle Concerts take place on four Tuesday evenings in the castle's Spanish Hall: the series opens on July 18th with the breathtakingly fresh music of L'Arpeggiata and Christina Pluhar.


You can see the full listings for Innsbruck Early Music Festival here.

This preview was sponsored by Innsbruck Tourismus.