Cecilia Bartoli, musical director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival, wrote in her festival introductory notes that "the gentle lute music of Rolf Lislevand has accompanied me through my hectic daily life for years" and that she hoped many people would come to hear this "quiet, quasi-Eurydicean concert".  Well, they did, and there were one or two minutes of quiet lute music, but the remaining two hours were anything but.

© Salzburger Festspiele / Wolfgang Lienbacher
© Salzburger Festspiele / Wolfgang Lienbacher

Rolf Lislevand has been a leading advocate for early music, and what has defined and distinguished his approach in particular is the integral part played by improvisation. Underpinning his philosophy is his virtuosity on the whole range of plucked instruments, including lutes, theorbo and Baroque guitar, and he has gathered together other like-minded instrumentalists in the form of the somewhat ephemeral Kapsberger Ensemble he founded some two decades ago, but which more recently has morphed into the Rolf Lislevand Ensemble much more accurately reflecting the dynamic of this very different and extremely accomplished group.

There were some unusual instruments on show including the nyckelharpa – a keyed fiddle originating from Sweden, the colascione, which resembles a long-necked lute but with only 4 strings, and the metal-fretted chitarra battente.

It was a hugely varied programme, with 6 sets each of between 2 and 4 items, so I will attempt just to give a flavour of performance. Throughout, the lutenists swapped instruments (8 between the 3 of them), with quiet individual improvisations linking the works, giving a real flow to concert despite the many different pieces. The Baroque guitar is seldom heard as a virtuoso instrument in its own right in the UK, but its full potential was demonstrated right from the opening bars of Gaspar Sanz's Paradetas, when Lislevand set on course a formula repeated for many of the works we heard, opening with a single instrument playing the main theme, taken up in harmony by another and gradually all instruments joining in, with variations on the melody passed between them. A change of instruments for Corbetta's Folias, introducing the chittara battente and colascione and a particularly rewarding interplay between the guitars and lutes.

The second set featured works by Johann Hieronymus Kapsberger and Alessandro Piccinini who together were the prime developers of lute and theorbo instruments and music during the early Baroque period. Kapsberger was represented by his utterly charming Canarios, written in Rome in 1640 and, interestingly, the famous Ciaccona, which used to be attributed to Kapsberger but more recently tends to be ascribed to Piccinini, here restored to Kapsberger in Lislevand's programme. Whomsoever the composer, it is a much-performed delightful chaconne, played here with speed, agility and precision, with many of the Lislevand touches which give it such zest and life – a few strummed notes or a rolling phrase between two different rhythms, echoed by the plucked double bass and range of percussion and, not to be outdone, a fascinating set of variations from the nyckelharpa.

The first half concluded with the vivid, pulsating rhythm of Foscarini's Aria di Firenze, contrasting entirely with Johnsen's delicate opening bars of Kapsberger's Toccata after the interval.  Then, in a break from Spain and Italy, to England for Home again, market is done from the Margaret Board lute book.  Johnsen's introduction was fast, increasingly so with the colascione and nyckelharpa, and driven ever faster by Lislevand's theorbo, highlighted with syncopated rhythm from the percussion - it was a breath-taking display by masters of their craft, the players barely looking at their music but instead fully engaged with each other and the music. The succeeding passamezzo by the Englishman, Thomas Robinson, was perhaps the only example of Cecilia Bartoli's "gentle lute" - here the Renaissance lute played by Johnsen - but supplemented by the nyckelharpa and colascione, the piece was yet another example of how the deeply rich ornamentation served not to obscure but to highlight the underlying musical form.

Altogether it was a captivating and invigorating concert which I will indeed be thinking about several years hence, and a classic demonstration from Rolf Lislevand of how to make this music as relevant to us today as it was in the 16th and 17th centuries.