As a long-standing fan of the London Festival of Baroque Music and its forerunner Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music, what has attracted me back to these festivals every year is their programming policy of combining the popular, large works (for example, Monteverdi’s Vespers this year) with the lesser-known gems of the Baroque repertoire. Additionally, they have a track record of seeking out exciting new continental baroque groups that have not had exposure in London before. This year, the programme of Austrian Baroque rarities by Swiss-based early music group Les Passions de l’Ame caught my eye in this respect.

Les Passions de L'ame © Guillaume Perret
Les Passions de L'ame
© Guillaume Perret

The delightful selection of rarities offered on this evening – none of which I had heard before in a live performance – were instrumental works by Austrian composers Schmelzer, Biber, Walther, and Fux: all well-established and respected composers in their day but still woefully neglected in our era. What’s more, they were all secular works with exotic or humorous content, which was not at all what I expecting from these composers, whom I had previously only known in sacred and serious oeuvres.

Les Passions de l’Ame (formed in 2008), led by the violinist and Artistic Director Meret Lüthi, was an ensemble of eight players on this occasion: two violins, four continuo players (cello, violone, lute and harpsichord/organ), and uniquely, percussion and psalterion (a kind of hammered dulcimer) adding spice and colour to the simple instrumentation of the original works. The programme, taken mainly from their CD albums, Spicy (2012) and soon-to-be-released Schabernack, featured multiple themes: one was the Turkish, or Janissary music theme, the second was the “cuckoo” theme, and in addition, many of the works derived from the collection in Castle Kroměříž in what is now the Czech Republic.

The most exotic piece of the evening was Fux’s Partita Turcaria that concluded the first half. The work was composed many years after the Ottoman Siege of Vienna in 1683, yet one could hear vividly in this four-movement suite how exotic the Janissary music must have sounded to contemporary people, including Fux. Although originally scored for two violins and continuo, the percussion and psalterion joined in with exotic colour. In the opening “Turcaria” movement, Fux alternates Turkish melodies with serious fugal writing (after all, he was the author of the famous treatise of counterpoint Gradus ad Parnassum), creating fascinating contrast. In the “Janitschara” and “Posta turcica” movements, the percussion and psalterium players had a field day.

The two pieces featuring cuckoos were also entertaining, and a great showcase for the outstanding virtuosity of leader Meret Lüthi, although she wears it very lightly. Walther’s Scherzo d’Augelli con il Cuccu (1688) is a one-movement fantasy for solo violin and continuo, and surely a precursor to Vivaldi’s bird-themed pieces. The simple, descending-third cuckoo motif is imaginatively developed, appearing each time in a more complex guise. Here too the psalterion added to the birdsong. Schmelzer’s Sonata Cu Cu (1664), found in the Kroměříž collection, also combines virtuosity with humour. Lüthi has great technical control and a pleasing and clear tone, playing with a lightness of bowing that is never aggressive. She was joined by colleague Sabine Stoffer in Biber’s Partia VI, both instrumentalists playing brilliantly in the virtuosic aria-and-variation movement.

The rest of the programme was equally colourful and fun, from Schmelzer’s dance suite entitled Fencing School (also from the Kroměříž collection) to Fux’s suite Les Combattants. The ensemble brought out the humorous elements with good taste and with sophisticated improvisatory skills. The percussionist Peter Kuhnsch had a table full of instruments including tambourines large and small, clappers, shells, knives and many other curious objects, with which he characterised the fencing and military scenes. The psalterion, played by Margit Übellacker, was used more to highlight or add exotic colour to the melodic line, the instrument having a distinctive resonance. One must not forget to mention the imaginative support of the continuo players, too, including cellist Alexandre Foster and lutist Shizuko Noiri. I’m sure their programme made everyone smile, and personally, it was a delight to discover a humorous side to these Baroque composers.