His passing last August was no surprise. Anyone who had witnessed Frans Brüggen conduct in recent years knew that he was far from healthy and old for his years. Yet he died with eyes firmly focussed on the future and a well-filled concert schedule. He was planning to conduct last Friday evening’s concert in Tivoli Vredenburg Utrecht, an event in celebration of the 80th birthday he missed by less than two months. A birthday quickly became a memorial concert featuring his own, beloved Orchestra of the 18th Century, Cappella Amsterdam and three close conducting friends: Ed Spanjaard, Kenneth Montgomery and Daniel Reuss.

Frans Brüggen © Askonas Holt
Frans Brüggen
© Askonas Holt

Another close friend, co-founder and director of the orchestra Sieuwert Verster, hosted all three auxiliary elements that turned the concert into an historic occasion: a previewing of a documentary on the man and his ensemble (première in November at the IDFA: International Documentary Film Festival), an interview and a live radio broadcast. Verster’s first few words had immense, even historic impact: despite Brüggen’s passing, the orchestra would soldier on, he announced.

It had always been assumed as well as regularly and openly communicated that the orchestra would cease to exist together with its founder, its soul, its raison d’être. Founded in 1981, the ensemble had not only evolved in musical terms, but this ‘one big family’ of twenty-three nationalities was, we all knew, inconceivable without its pater familias. So yes, unexpectedly and happily, the orchestra will continue, decidedly without an attempt ‘to replace the irreplaceable’, now inviting friends and ‘as yet unknown new friends’ to conduct future projects.

Katarzyna Kasica’s elegant and intimate film portrait, shot in Poland in 2013 and subtly starring Brüggen, is suitably entitled: The Breath of the Orchestra. For generations, Frans Brüggen was indeed that tall, handsome, rather radical Dutchman with perfect circular breathing who, in perfect stage attire of white tie and tails, would pull out the tiniest of sopranino recorders and literally blow early music lovers away, time and again. Publicly denouncing symphonic interpretations as “a lie from A to Z”, this virtuoso of the simple instrument with the negative image, the recorder, working closely with the other major figures of the elegant revolution of authentic performance practice, among them fellow Amsterdammers Gustav Leonhardt and Anner Bijlsma, himself went on to conduct symphonic repertoire, seeking to  satisfy the very personal, burning musical curiosity within.

Bold actions followed provocative, even political statements. As Verster vividly explained again Friday, together with 50 other soloists (soldiers) of the revolution, Brüggen initially “opened windows” on Bach, Handel, in a time when Haydn was still a daring move. The rest is history: the Orchestra of the 18th century has since built a loyal following, an impressive and award-winning discography and concert history, and an ever expanding repertoire culminating in the, once again, eye-opening inclusion of Chopin.

To open Friday evening, a Bach chorale, “Herr, gib, dass ik dein’ Ehre” from Cantata BWV107, was performed without conductor in an emotional tribute, with the musicians hugging an empty rostrum, poignantly reminiscent of a horse sans rider in a formal, state funeral.

Mozart’s Mass in C minor and Jupiter Symphony further graced Friday evening’s sold out concert. Led by their own Music Director Daniel Reuss, Cappella Amsterdam was magnificent in the Mass (KV 427, recently finished by Clemens Kemme): their impressive range of colours and dynamics was, at moments, breathtaking. Such sublime subito pianos! Two excellent soprano soloists – Ilse Eerens and Rosanne van Sandwijk – were individually marvellous as well as a perfect match. Unfortunately, the good casting ended there. Their male counterparts, undoubtedly well chosen choir members, had neither the powers of projection nor the musical presence to round out Mozart’s exquisite vocal (trios and) quartets.

The truly historic performance on Friday was of Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in F minor. Frédéric Chopin had recently been yet another ‘new window’ for the orchestra, opened by Brüggen during several residencies at The Chopin Institute and Festival Warsaw – no more appropriate place imaginable. Maestro Ed Spanjaard conducted the concerto, a true Dutch master who coaxed an entirely different timbre from the ensemble, audible from the very first bar. Authentic strings were inspired to use every last millimetre of their bows as Spanjaard eloquently accented Chopin’s long, luscious lines. His lucid gestures resulted in a rich palette; even the (authentic!) winds changed wholeheartedly from classical silver into romantic gold. Soloist Janusz Olejniczák was at times serene and free, unfortunately at most others, hectic and uncoordinated.

How does idealism sound? Perhaps it sounds like the Orchestra of the 18th Century. Founded with 1960s fervour and still administrated on a completely ‘even-Stephen’ basis (even the conductors have been paid the exact same amount as every instrumentalist), this family ensemble was born from frustration with the symphonic powers that once were, and has subsequently been bred on curiosity and a demur sense of discovery that has allowed it to prosper and grow past early technical tribulations and performance practice isolation. The world’s major stages now regularly welcome the group, and with the inclusion of Chopin, the gap with their powerful symphonic colleagues is rapidly closing.

Charmed by a charismatic musician whose leadership they must now miss, the Orchestra has nevertheless fiercely decided to carry on their founder’s quest for musical truth. Friday evening’s concert, a first step into the future, was exquisite at times. Certainly encouraging, it was full of the breath Frans Brüggen instilled. “Maybe he’s immortal?” a cellist queried in the new documentary. Verster as well as Brüggen's ensemble are together clearly committed to keep on breathing.