The Musikfest Ernen’s Baroque week, under the artistic direction of Ada Pesch and Deirdre Dowling, continues to have resounding appeal. The fourth concert of its series was held in Ernen’s historic parish church, the Musikdorf Ernen festival’s principal venue that is as much a feast for eyes as the music is for ears. Perched facing southwest on the town’s most visible promontory, the building overlooks the broad expanse of the Goms Valley on foundations that date from the 11th century. From the 16th to 19th centuries, the building underwent numerous alterations, leaving the church brimming with artefacts, frescoes and triptychs that attest to generations of churchgoers before our own. As such, it makes a perfect backdrop to baroque music, and recent lighting and acoustic improvements do even more to enhance the visual and acoustic experience.

Soprano Maria Keohane and Barockensemble Ernen © Stefan Babuliack
Soprano Maria Keohane and Barockensemble Ernen
© Stefan Babuliack

The baroque programmes target a degree of diversity, a mix of well known and lesser known composers, a variety of colours among the works and pieces that give the ensemble a chance to feature the talents of the individual players. Accordingly, the most recent concert featured works highlighting solo recorder, cello, a duet for theorbo and double bass, a soprano and works by Antonio Vivaldi that were played alongside the works of four far lesser-known Italian composers.

First up was Evaristo Felice dall'Abaco’s Concerto a quattro da chiesa D minor, a piece whose beginnings shows great indebtedness to the baroque master Corelli. The final movement plays by its own rules of refreshment, however, and includes the repeated exchange of a musical line among instruments that brought violist Dowling to a broad smile several times over.

Following was the Recorder Concerto in F major by Giuseppe Sammartini, a Milanese composer and oboist who wrote numerous solo sonatas for his own instrument, the flute and recorder. Soloist Benny Aghassi’s engagement was riveting; he asked us questions with the recorder and then answered them glibly. He alternated moments of tension with graceful sweeps of his body and paralleled them in sound. Almost like a naughty boy in a François Truffaut film, he taunted, queried, put forth, engaged, and resolved in a combination of musical virtuosity and personality that was nothing short of infectious. 

Maria Keohane © Sarah Batschelet
Maria Keohane
© Sarah Batschelet

Likewise, soprano Maria Keohane, who sang in Antonio Vivaldi’s marvellous Laudate pueri dominum, brought tremendous personality and drama to her performance, giving palpable texture to the setting of Psalm 112. From her very first entrance, having shaken her shoulders and thrown back her head, Ms. Keohane filled the church with her strong, silvery voice. She added highly animated gestures to aid comprehension, raising her arms as if appealing to a greater power. A fine interaction between the singer and the spry Ada Pesch in the ninth verse, “Laudate, pueri Sicut erat in principio” led nicely into the emphatic kick with which the singing launched her final resounding “Amen”.

After the break, Mike Fentross (theorbo) and Paolo Zucceri (double bass) played the delightful Toccata IV by the Bolognese lutenist and composer Alessandro Piccinini. The piece is studded with humour in the form of syncopated plucks made in quick succession first by the one player, then the other. It was fun to laugh in church at the cheekiness of the thing, especially in the context two instruments played so expertly.  

Then, with a lovely bronze tonality, cellist Catherine Jones did great justice to what was scored as the fairly uninteresting first movement of Nicolò Fiorenza’s cello concerto. Her muscular approach to the demands of intricate fingering in the second were also highly commendable. The third movement seemed somewhat passionless, however; the fourth showed her in command of a great number of notes, but Ms. Jones's face showed little expression and it was hard to say whether she actually liked what she was doing.

The concert ended on In furore iustissimae irae, Vivaldi’s solo motet for soprano, strings and basso continuo that dates from the early 1720s. An ornate portrayal of a sinner’s supplication before a wrathful God, it makes a great platform for coloratura virtuosity. Particularly in the second aria, Ms. Keohane gave herself up entirely to lyrical song, lifting and descending as smoothly as a hand over satin. In the spirited and complex configurations of the final “Alleluia”, she started off handsomely, but met with hard going in her middle voice, which is not her strong point, as the tone of her very last note aptly showed. Nonetheless, hers was a compelling and highly engaging performance; I was only sorry that during this piece, despite her many attempts to make direct eye contact with her fellow performers, players seemed to limit personal interaction to dialogue with their own scores.