Any early music concert called “La morte della ragione” brings to mind Boccaccian bawdiness if not Suetonian sensuality. Not that the 52nd Andrzej Markowski International Wratislavia Cantans Festival in Wrocław could be accused of slipping into medieval debauchery. Actually the title came from the first item on the programme which was an anonymous pavane derived from the Petrarchian aphorism “Regnano i sensi, et la ragion è morta” (senses reign, reason is dead).

Giovanni Antonini and Il giardino armonico © Joanna Stoga
Giovanni Antonini and Il giardino armonico
© Joanna Stoga

Similarly, any programme which features composers such as Hayne van Ghizeghem, Giovanni Pietro del Buono or Dario Castello would have most seasoned concertgoers scratching their heads or at least making a bee-line for the closest Grove or Google. This concert was anything but traditional or predictable.

Devised by the Artistic Director of the Wratislavia Cantans Festival and leader of the celebrated Il giardino armonico ensemble, Giovanni Antonini, the order of music eschewed the usual chronological programming order in favour of thematic and contextual continuity which spanned a period of over 200 years. 

For example, a three voiced chanson “de tous biens plaine” originally by Hayne van Ghizeghem received several arrangements including one by Josquin des Prez and several by Alexander Agricola who seems to have disappeared into the Early Music ether. Many of the items were quite short and segued effortlessly into totally different styles and instrumentation in the way a selection of mixed sweetmeats may have individual tastes but still blend into a delicious totality. In the spirit of multi-cultural ecumenicalism, the White Stork Synagogue in Wrocław provided a spiritually serene and acoustically sonorous concert venue.

There were a number of stand-out performances including virtuoso cornett playing by Andrea Inghisciano and Gawain Glenton in Nicolas Gombert’s “La Rose” from Canzon per sonar and in the Sonata XII a otto voci from the Canzoni e Sonate by Giovanni Gabrieli,  who was Monteverdi’s predecessor as maestro di cappella at the Basilica di San Marco. The flamboyant juxtaposed question-and-answer polychoral structure was pure Venetian and indicative of the level of virtuosity expected at the time. Veteran cellist Paolo Beschi was an anchor of stability and harpist Margaret Köll showed skill and sensitivity with some particularly fine playing in Zanetti’s La bella pedrina from Il scolaro and the Canzon francese del principe by Gesualdo da Venosa. Riccardo Doni displayed artistic adroitness on the cimbalo cromatico in Giovanni Pietro Del Buono's Sonata VII Stravagante and Emily White excelled with some raucous, rhythmic and wonderfully raspy trombone playing throughout.

Giovanni Antonini and Il giardino armonico © Joanna Stoga
Giovanni Antonini and Il giardino armonico
© Joanna Stoga

Ensemble excellence was evident in Lodovico Grossi da Viadana’s La napoletana from the Sinfonie musicali and the rapid bravura trills and runs on cornets and flutes which opened the rollicking Galliard battaglia from Ludi musici by Samuel Scheidt were a perfect example of Il giardino armonico’s astounding overall virtuosity.

The absolute star performer and unquestioned primus inter pares however was ensemble leader and Baroque recorder legend Giovani Antonini. His sheer physicality and facial expressions were fascinating. Grinning, grimacing, growling, lunging and leaping around the stage of the sombre White Stork synagogue, the Milanese maestro was sometimes Pan, sometimes Puck and looking all the time rather like a slightly older and much more mischievous Harry Potter. Instead of a magic wand of holly and phoenix feather, Antonini used a wondrous selection of renaissance recorders and dulcian to weave his musical spells, which was particularly apposite in the case of the Schiarazula marazula by Giorgio Mainerio who was a flicker away from being prosecuted for witchcraft.

Antonini was never in one place for long. He sometimes faced the musicians but at other times they were behind his focus and quite often, he simply moved across to sit next to his colleagues, leading from the side. There were countless examples of scintillating improvised ornamentations, dazzling wide-interval trilling, supra-stratospheric sopranino recorder high notes and seductive cantilene. It was if the Pied Piper had given up rats for renaissance roulades. Particularly mesmerising playing occurred in Jacob van Eyck’s Fantasia & Echo monody from Der Fluyten Lust-hof. The contrasting forte/piano phrases were not just technically flawless but imbued with passion and profound musicality.

According to Petrarch, reason may be dead but marvellous music by Giovanni Antonini and Il giardino armonico, is still very much alive and kicking.