Founded in 2005, Concerto Stella Matutina hail from the musically rich Vorarlberg region of Austria (home of the Schubertiade). For this evening’s concert, they were represented by two violins, a viola, cello and double bass apiece, a concert organ and percussion, plus their magnificent Baroque brass section – three players with a variety of horns, trumpets, trombones and cornetts. They play with or without a director as suits the occasion. In this, their debut at the Rheingau Festival, they were led by Norwegian lutenist/Baroque guitarist Rolf Lislevand, who has been a driving force in developing early music performance, not just by using period instruments and original sources of music but most notably by reinstating the missing element of improvisation – a well-established and widely employed technique at the time the music was composed but seldom encountered in Baroque or other classical music these days. Lislevand (Baroque guitar, theorbo) brought with him two of his erstwhile Kapsberger Ensemble colleagues; his compatriot and former student Thor-Harald Johnsen (Renaissance lute, Baroque guitar, chitarra battente) and Bjørn Kjellemyr on double bass, playing primarily in jazz style, using fingers rather than with a bow.

Rolf Lislevand © Francesca Pfeffer
Rolf Lislevand
© Francesca Pfeffer

The imposing former monastery Kloster Eberbach is the flagship location for the Rheingau Music Festival and a sold-out concert saw some 1,000 of us gathered for a programme subtitled “Early Music Meets Jazz”. I was lucky enough to catch its inaugural performance in Austria in February 2012, and it was one of the most scintillating and memorable concerts I have heard in years. Its translation from a concert hall to the cavernous Basilica did make for some difficulties with sound projection, especially for the lower register instruments. The amplified double bass suffered particularly, generating a lot of reverberation and (with one exception, of which more later) the Baroque/concert organ was mostly undistinguishable; even the brass instruments occasionally failed to cut through the acoustic space. However, the players took these problems in their stride and there was much to enjoy in this very different concert.

Most of the pieces dated from the 16th century, very much within the remit of the lutenists, but we also heard two pieces from the rather neglected field which Concerto Stella Matutina have made their own, namely the Austrian High Baroque. Johann Heinrich Schmelzer was one of the founding fathers of the style, and his Sonata à 3 was a graceful slow work which showcased the technical abilities of the cornett players since, at the time, these early trumpets were considered the equal of the violin in terms of virtuosity. Then to the real business of the evening, where the earlier music started to meet the jazz, such as the 16th-century Aria di Firenze (anonymous). Here the crisp but fluid rhythmic precision of the two guitarists, alternating between melody and improvisation, brought out vividly the underlying dance theme, supplemented subsequently by some jazzy trombone.

The music in the second half started in near darkness with Thor-Harald Johnsen’s variations on Kapsberger’s Toccata II, developed by Lislevand’s guitar, moving seamlessly via Frescobaldi’s Aria di passacaglia to Lislevand’s dramatic arrangement of an anonymous Passacaglia Andaluz, played breathtakingly fast. Then for me, the highlight of the evening, two pieces by Francesco da Milano; firstly his delicately beautiful Canon, with the Renaissance lute talking to the Baroque guitar and demonstrating how enlightening it can be to hear variations within a familiar piece being played with effortless ease by two musicians so skilled in the practice of improvisation. Secondly, the lively La Spagna where the muted trumpet and other brass illustrated how Stella Matutina are also rising to the challenge of improvisation. To complete the evening, we heard a passamezzo by the Englishman Thomas Robinson (a contemporary of the famous English lutenist John Dowland, whose 450th anniversary we are celebrating this year), an exciting Quinta Pars by Diego Ortiz, and an anonymous Tourdion – during which time the Baroque organ finally had its moment in the sun with an effective solo riff which made audience and musicians alike smile at the incongruity.

The encore summed up perfectly the imaginative ethos of the whole evening, with musicians fully engaged with each other and making old music seem as fresh and contemporary as on the day it was written. The delightful “Home again, market is done” from the Margaret Board Lute Book (Board was a pupil of Dowland) was played as a passacaglia, with a distinctly Celtic feel – begun by the guitarists, with the Stella Matutina musicians joining in gradually, each repetition getting faster and culminating in a joyous climax which brought the audience to their feet.

The Rheingau Music Festival is an extensive, summer-long event with distinguished musicians and an eclectic mix of concert styles, ranging from Monteverdi Vespers to modern jazz. The concert locations are very easy to reach using the efficient shuttle buses and I shall look forward to making a longer visit next year.