It seems music-loving Latvians can not get enough of live concerts. Set in the magnificent recently restored 18th-century Rundāle Palace outside Riga, the International Festival of Early Music offered a smorgasbord of Baroque music bonbons over the course of a lengthy afternoon and evening. A concert for children called “Frog becoming Princess” with music by Jean-Philippe Rameau kicked off the musical marathon.

La Cetra d'Orfeo © Didzis Grodzs
La Cetra d'Orfeo
© Didzis Grodzs

This was followed by a curious combination of early Spanish and Latin American music given by the Ancient Music Ensemble La Cetra d’Orfeo from Belgium in the Gold Hall reception room, capacity 380. The ensemble’s founder and leader Michel Keustermans wowed the audience by reading an opening speech in Latvian – no small feat of linguistic ability. He also made further explanations as the program progressed in heavily French-accented English which seemed to confuse rather than clarify.

16th- and 17th-Spanish composers such as Andrès Flores, Diego Ortiz and Juan del Encina were probably about as familiar to the Latvian audience as Mozart would be to a Martian, but the music-loving locals absorbed everything offered with wild enthusiasm. There was some very fine viola da gamba playing by Ronan Kernoa and sensitive work on theorba and vihuela by Philippe Malfeyt. A multitude of Baroque flutes were played by Michel Keustermans himself. The only weak component to the ensemble was the singing of Marie de Roy who tended to be a bit shrill and had serious intonation problems, especially at the top of the range. Many of the pieces in the relatively long programme were complemented by mostly traditional Spanish choreography from two dancers, Maria-Angeles Hurtado and Jaime Puente who miraculously managed not to fandango onto the flutes lying on the floor.

Christian Frattima and Coin du Roi © Didzis Grodzs
Christian Frattima and Coin du Roi
© Didzis Grodzs

Because of the clamour for endless encores, there was barely 15 minutes for many of the audience to scamper over to the superb stuccoed White Hall of the palace (capacity 460) for the next event. This was the Coin du Roi ensemble from Milan who gave what was probably the most interesting concert of the Festival. Opening with a delightfully translucent reading of Vivaldi’s better known concerto for Lute in D Major, soloist Mauro Pinciaroli played with sensitivity and subtle rubato. Maestro Christian Frattima led the small ensemble with delicate phrasing and well-judged piano-forte-piano dynamic modulations. The only distressing aspect of the short concerto was some alarmingly poor intonation from the first violin.

Bach’s D Major harpsichord concerto, which is essentially a re-write of his earlier E Major violin concerto, was another more familiar item on the programme. Again, the Coin du Roi ensemble excelled in their customary crisp rhythmic playing, especially the lower strings and bass continuo. Soloist Luka Oberti displayed a solid keyboard technique with unforced rubato.

The real curiosity item on the programme was the concerto by Joseph-Barnabé Saint-Sevin (better known as French violin pedagogue “L’Abbé le Fils”) for Baroque musette and orchestra. Apparently it is only the third time since 1750 this concerto has been performed.

For those who might think a ‘musette’ is something out of La bohème, it is actually a mini-bagpipe powered by a small underarm bellows system. The sound is somewhere between an oboe and a muted barrel organ. Maître de musette Jean-Pierre van Hees easily managed the demands of this rare oeuvre with remarkably restrained aplomb. The final work was maestro Frattima’s arrangement of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s orchestral suite from Les Indes galantes which enabled van Hees to rejoin the ensemble for the “Musette en Rondo” movement.

Jean-Pierre van Hees playing musette © Didzis Grodzs
Jean-Pierre van Hees playing musette
© Didzis Grodzs

This was the full compliment of Coin du Roi players and included some absolutely dazzling André-esque solo trumpet playing in the concluding Chaconne by Simone Amelli. Flutes and horns were again impressive, as was the solo bassoon. The timpanist/tambourine player Nadia Benjaballah looked like she had just stepped off a Milan fashion catwalk and pounded the skins in the ‘Tambourins’ movement with feline ferocity. Maestro Frattima kept a brisk pace throughout and the rhythmic consistency which characterized the earlier part of the programme was again evident. An encore of the rousing Charpentier Te Deum Prelude brought out more outstanding ornamentation and trilling from the solo trumpet.

Rundāle Palace © Didzis Grodzs
Rundāle Palace
© Didzis Grodzs

The final offering of the evening (which by this time was around 22.30) was an outdoor performance by the Kremerata Baltica orchestra of various Baroque works, culminating in what has become a traditional playing of the Vivaldi Four Seasons, on this occasion with local violinist Georg Sarkisjan. In contrast to the intimate matinée musicale atmosphere of the earlier concerts, this was an al fresco performance of early music for 3,800 avid listeners – which must be a world record.

The splendid formal French gardens and imposing façade of Rundāle Palace provided a superb setting for this extremely popular event and despite several hours of marvellous Baroque music, many in the audience were clamouring for more.