If Vienna is the holy temple of classical music (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Strauss, Bruckner and Mahler all spent large tracts of their careers here), then the Musikverein is its holy of holies. Just soaking in all that history makes a visit here into a special occasion, and the heavily gilt halls are as opulent and redolent of empire as you might imagine. We went to the smaller Brahms-Saal to hear the acclaimed early music group Lautten Compagney Berlin play a programme of works by Purcell, Monteverdi and various lesser known composers.

Musikverein © David Karlin 2011
Musikverein
© David Karlin 2011

The programme started with a series of pieces by Italian composers of the early 17th century: Lorenzo Allegri, Corradini, Marini, Merula - all names that were unfamiliar to me. The ensemble consisted of string quartet, double bass, theorbo, baroque guitar, a percussionist playing many different instruments and two wind players: Martin Ripper, who played various recorders and Frithjof Smith who playing a cornett (or "Zink"). The sound texture was notable: that particular balance of instruments and the heavily accented rhythms took my mind directly to a renaissance palace. A remarkable amount of colour is added by apparently tiny contributions from the wind or percussionists: a few notes from the cornett, a skirl from the recorder or a few beats of a tamborello would completely alter the character of a piece.

Seeing this kind of early music instrumental ensemble is a different experience from going to a later classical concert, or even a concert of early vocal music, because there is, relatively speaking, so little formal structure to the music. Since there isn't a strong sense of progression or development, your ears focus on rhythms, sound quality and the delight of individual phrases. The Lautten Compagney are packed with talented instrumentalists who provided wonderful life in the dances and much playing to enjoy.

However, I found the format difficult. We had a printed programme with everything being played, but I was unfamiliar with most of the music and in the absence of any explanations or any vocals, most of the time, I wasn't sure when one work ended and the next began. I had a feeling of drifting pleasantly through a renaissance music wash, and would have preferred to have something to latch on to.

This was provided in the second half of the concert, which featured, amongst other things, Purcell's Fantazia on one note, a beautiful Elizabethan song The Three Ravens and two familiar Monteverdi pieces: Si dolce é'l tormento and Quel sguardo sdegnosetto. These have strong melodies ripe for improvisation, and I was very struck by how jazz-like the performance was, with a powerful combination of plucked bass and percussion providing a ground for fills from guitar and theorbo and improvisations on the melody from violins, recorders and cornett. It felt like looking at a breakpoint in musical history: the point at which that style of simple melody and complex improvisation took a temporary break while the more elaborate, structured classical forms emerged, to return in the form of jazz in the twentieth century.

As the concert neared its close, the players began to let their hair down a bit, adding contributions from jew's harp and various other strange instruments. Perhaps the hallowed environs of the Musikverein had intimidated them, but I found myself wishing that they had been a little less formal and had led us through the music a little more: I'm sure there was much more to be got out of this concert than the pleasant enjoyment of sound textures and some impressive improvisations.

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