The world’s largest gathering of early music artists and professionals, the Festival Oude Muziek Utrecht, marked its final concert on Sunday 2 September with a full-house performance by the Collegium Vocale Gent. Led by Philippe Herreweghe, the ensemble has been dedicated since the 1970s to the pursuit of Baroque sonorities and performance practice. The concert itself marked the end of the 13-day event, which every year brings the world’s best Baroque musicians to the lovely and quaint city of Utrecht, The Netherlands.

Collegium Vocale Gent © Michiel Hendryckx
Collegium Vocale Gent
© Michiel Hendryckx

The city was abuzz with Baroque music with nearly every church involved in the roughly 12 hours of music scheduled per day. Flocks of fans would scurry from concert to concert, taking in the early instruments market or perhaps a free “Fringe” concert given by the most promising of today’s fresh Baroque talent.

Ranging from individual soloists on harpsichord or a six-person viola da gamba consort, all the way to the large orchestral settings of Bach’s cantatas and orchestral suites, the festival had something for everyone’s taste. Today’s biggest and most influential performers could be found on the agenda, from Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan to La Petite Bande, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and the Ensemble Clément Janequin.

Drawing a beautiful connection between Johann Sebastian Bach and Dieterich Buxetehude, highlighting the influence of the latter on the style of the former, Philippe Herreweghe juxtaposed two cantatas by both composers with the same chorale melodies. Bach’s “Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin” (BWV125) was played with characteristic gesture and grace by this 20-piece Baroque orchestra. Particularly striking were the individual efforts of Patrick Beuckels (traverso) and Benoît Laurent (Baroque oboe) in their shared aria with the countertenor Damien Guillon. The oboe and flute combined with the perfect combination of lightness and shadow, all the while serving the efforts of Mr. Guillon, who represented just one part of the 12-person vocal ensemble comprising Bach’s chorus. Sung with purity of sound and attention to particular Baroque details, the Collegium Vocale again proved itself amongst the world’s top groups in the genre.

Compared to Bach’s instrumental and vocal setting, that of Buxtehude strikes us as quite small. The cleverness in placing Buxtehude’s version of “Mit Fried und Freud” here made the contrast all the more apparent. This time the instrumentalists comprised but five people, allowing viola da gambas to enter the stage. This version was truly much more intimate, demanding a chamber music commitment from the players instead of a highly orchestral perspective.

One drawback to my experience was the absolute immersion into the theme of the festival. In such an event it can be very easy to become bombarded with the “sacred” essence of such works from Bach’s sacred repertoire. It is important to remember that Bach’s cantatas, as well as Buxtehude’s, were meant for church services (Bach writing one for each Sunday) and thus took on a very different purpose and character than they do today in our grand concert halls. Though the experience of such music in churches makes more sense than, say, the venue of this particular concert, the persistence of the sacred theme affects the ear and the patience through such a festival. These cantatas were never intended to be played in such a context and therefore felt a bit out of place. Imagine 1,000 people who have paid to listen to the music which was meant as vigil during a Sunday service – it’s a strange way to spend an evening, even though the concert was on a Sunday night!

Besides the element of context, which early music artists are constantly struggling with, the festival, as always, brought a richness to the streets and concert venues of Utrecht. The Netherlands has always attracted the best of this genre and to see it in its full glory once each year is truly something, whether you are an artist yourself or just seeking a musical pilgrimage to another time.

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