It is always worth one’s while to check the Schubertsaal of the Konzerthaus. With its bright yellow walls, lovely acoustics and modest dimensions, it is here that hopeful young artists, unique cycles and unusual chamber ensembles find their place and interesting things happen. Ars Antiqua certainly is one such interesting ensemble. Since its inception in 1995 the group has devoted itself to the performance and recording of Baroque masterpieces as well as shedding light on hitherto uncelebrated composers of the time period. It is an effort to be applauded and has been heartily rewarded. Since 2002 the ensemble has had its own cycle in Vienna’s Konzerthaus, and since 2008 can be heard regularly at the Brucknerhaus in Linz.

Ars Antiqua Austria © AAA
Ars Antiqua Austria

On Sunday's programme, founder and violinist Gunar Letzbor, joined by Peter Trefflinger on the five-stringed bass viol, Erich Traxler on organ and harpsichord and Hubert Hoffmann on theorbo, presented compositions by Carlo Ambrogio Lonati, affectionately nicknamed “Der Biber aus Rom” (The Biber from Rome), so as not to be confused by his contemporary, the famous violinist and composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, who hailed from Salzburg. An Italian composer, Lonati composed, taught and was by all accounts brilliant on stage, where he made comedic singing and playing violin his unique calling card. Lonati befriended Alessandro Stradella and was nicknamed “Il Gobbo della Regina” (The Queen’s Hunchback) as of his time in the service of Queen Christina of Sweden, a reference to what was likely a congenital disfiguration of his spine.

In 1701 Lonati turned out an impressive collection of 12 Sonate per violin e basso continuo dedicated to the Kaiser Leopold I, five of which were selected for performance by the ensemble. As compositions they are fascinating and varied works. The highly Italianate D major sonata opened the programme, a duo between violin and organ typified by a fanfare-like opening, a bass pedal from the organ with an improvisational violin opening, and loads of dissonance. The duo became a quartet for the second sonata which is characterized by soloistic imitation between the bass viol and violin, and overall a much more thoughtful and melodic mood, with choleric outbursts of virtuosity interrupting from time to time as the two strings competed for attention. The viol stepped out of the limelight slightly, taking on continuo function in the third sonata, a work filled with compound meter and polyphonic complexity, culminating in a wild Presto and Giga designed to whirl us into the interval.

Imitation was once more the operative word throughout the sonata in E minor; imitation between the violin and bass viol pervaded including a strict canon in octaves and fugal work. Here it was particularly clear that not only was Lenoti influenced by contemporaries such as Biber, but was also himself influential. One can easily see in the craftsmanship of this sonata’s fugal sophistication a direct link to J.S. Bach’s contrapuntal idiom. The final sonata of the evening, the sixth in the collection, returned to the technique of a bass pedal in the organ with the violin dancing above. It also featured the added element of scordatura, the only sonata in the evening’s offerings to do so, with the violinist retuning his strings to a,e,a,e for a highly virtuosic close.

One could not ask for a more fascinating set of music, and I applaud the performance much more for its conception and interest than I can for its execution, which suffered greatly under a seeming lack of care or preparation by its founder. Despite his enthusiasm and engagement – talking with the audience, writing programme notes and the like, Letzbor’s attention to detail did not extend to his performance and at several times during the evening I wondered honestly if he were not perhaps sight reading the music in front of him. The engagement of his colleagues, who played with great dexterity, ensemble and musicality – sublime in both phrasal emphasis and tone - was unfortunately not enough to make this performance anything other than deeply disappointing.

One can only hope that this performance was an unusual misstep for a group so widely accepted in Vienna, and one whose ideals and efforts are so commendable.