For most Latvians there is not much of a difference between Palestrina or Pärt. Good music is good music no matter where it comes from or when it was written. For 23 years, the International Early Music Festival in Riga proves the point with sold-out seasons leaving legions music-loving locals clamouring for more. The final concerts in the packed three day Festival is a marathon of music-making in the sumptuous Rundāle Palace outside Riga which attracts literally thousands of baroque enthusiasts. Not bad in a country of less than two million inhabitants.

Marléne Keine and Mihail Chulpaev in <i>Wonderful Pearl</i> © Didzis Grodzs
Marléne Keine and Mihail Chulpaev in Wonderful Pearl
© Didzis Grodzs

A series of five events start in the early afternoon and continue until well after midnight. The first divertissement is traditionally a piece of music theatre for children held in the splendid stuccoed White Hall of the Palace which has a capacity of 460. On this occasion there were swarms of incredibly well behaved, blond haired, cutely period-costumed kiddies sitting on the floor near the stage which increased the capacity signifcantly.

Bass playing bear in <i>Wonderful Pearl</i> © Didzis Grodzs
Bass playing bear in Wonderful Pearl
© Didzis Grodzs
This year’s production was called The Wonderful Pearl with narrator, singers, dancers, four musicians (including a double bass-playing bear) and lots of visual and vocal attractions to keep tots, toddlers and teens attentive and amused. A particularly scary villain caused a few moments of anxiety for the under 7s but as in all good fairy tales, there was a happy ending with pearl-chokered heroine marrying the handsome prince. Said Girl with a Pearl was played by Marléne Keine, who when not beguiling princes is an accomplished young soprano ideal for Barbarina or Zerlina. Wild applause led to a speedy scamper to the outside ice-cream stalls by the culture-charged kiddies.

The second offering of the day was directed at a slightly more serious audience with music by Vivaldi, Handel, Leo and Rameau. The arias were sung by local soprano Elīna Šimkus and countertenor Sergejs Jēgers with the Coin du Roi ensemble conducted by Christian Frattima.

While Jēgers certainly trumpeted his way through several familiar Handel arias, the voice lacked nuance or subtlety. There was a tendency to sing from the right side of the mouth and an alarming gear change between registers. In contrast, Elīna Šimkus was a model of stylish phrasing and restrained vocalism producing a beautifully rounded timbre in the middle and lower registers and a ringing crystal-clear top. It is difficult to pigeon-hole this accomplished singer as she has a warm mezzo colour but also a rock-sold upper range which seems to extend into the stratosphere. A highlight was Leo’s moving “Manca sollecita” from Il Demetrio where Šimkus displayed a ravishing timbre, seductive legato, subtle dynamic changes and pristine ornamentation in the da capo. The contrast between the two singers was especially apparent in an encore duet of “Pur ti miro” from Monteverdi’s L'incoronazione di Poppea where Jēgers either pushed or barked while Šimkus scrupulously followed the dynamic markings and sang with the mellifluous elegance of Arleen Auger.

Elīna Šimkus and Christian Frattima © Didzis Grodzs
Elīna Šimkus and Christian Frattima
© Didzis Grodzs

After a quick coffee break it was into the opulent Golden Hall of the Palace (capacity 380) for a delightful recital of Scarlatti, Dall’Abaco, Vivaldi and Veracini by the Luxembourg-based ArteMandoline ensemble. As the name would imply, the group comprises Baroque mandolins, Baroque guitar, viola da gamba and cembalo. This was musicianship of the highest calibre in an ideal setting of intimacy and charm. A sprint back to the White Hall was necessary for the final indoors concert of 17th-century music from the French Court performed by Collegium Musicum Riga led by Mira Glodeanu with Māris Kupčs at the cembalo. The most interesting item was Leclair’s Violin Concerto in A minor although as soloist Glodeanu had occasional intonation problems notwithstanding her infectious enthusiasm. There was some good bassoon playing but violas were inconsequential.

ArteMandoline © Didzis Grodzs
ArteMandoline
© Didzis Grodzs

Traditionally the Festival ends every year with Vivadi’s Quattro Stagione played in the vast formal gardens to an audience of around 4,000. Unfortunately on this occasion the prevalent season was more autumnal drizzle than midsummer mildness but the excellent Sinfonietta Riga orchestra led by the indefatigable Christian Frattima gave a nuanced and subtle performance of this perilously overplayed oeuvre. As soloist, Russian born wunderkind violinist Yury Revich braved the chilly late-night air and occasional distracting insects to deliver a performance of remarkable insight and dazzling virtuosity. For once it was not only the manic Presto movement of Summer or the foot-tapping Allegro in Spring which thrilled the audience, but also the delicate Largo in Winter and mysterious Adagio molto of Autumn which also displayed an admirable synchronicity between soloist and ensemble. Christian Frattima led the Latvian musicians with rhythmic clarity, measured rubato and a high degree of dynamic variation.

Rundāle closing concert © Didzis Grodzs
Rundāle closing concert
© Didzis Grodzs

Handelian pyrotechnics finished off a long day at Rundāle Palace but the real fireworks had already happened during an electrifying performance of the perennial Vivaldi crowd-pleaser.