Da Vinci’s Design For Gamba-Organ Voiced At Festival

Polish keyboardist Sławomir Zubrzycki introduced the viola organista during a recital for the festival Wratislavia Cantans.  (Photo by Łukasz Rajchert)
Polish keyboardist Sławomir Zubrzycki introduced the viola organista at the festival Wratislavia Cantans in Wroclaw.
(Photo by Łukasz Rajchert)
By Rebecca Schmid

WROCŁAW, Poland — The excitement is high in this Polish city, once the capital of Silesia and now designated as Europe’s Capital of Culture in 2016. Plans are underway to unveil a 100-million Euro National Forum of Music with four different concert halls, the largest of which will seat 1,800, by next fall. The acoustics are being provided  by New York firm Artec, whose halls include the Lucerne Festival’s KKL.

Zubrzycki performed on viola organista in a small evangelical church.
Zubrzycki performed on viola organista in a small evangelical church.

Meanwhile, the city’s annual festival Wratislavia Cantans, founded in 1965 with a focus on vocal music, has become increasingly international, first under the artistic direction of British conductor Paul McCreesh and, since last year, Italian flutist and conductor Giovanni Antonini. This year’s program (Sept. 5-14) ranged from an Arvo Pärt program with Tõnu Kaljuste and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir to a recital by cellist Sol Gabetta and rising young pianist Bertrand Chamayou.

Another attraction was a recital by Polish keyboardist Sławomir Zubrzycki on the viola organista, a hybrid instrument he completed last year according to the designs of Leonardo da Vinci, who drafted eight different versions of the wheel-bowed keyboard instrument but never carried out his vision. The posthumous recreation sounds roughly like the cross-pollination of a viola da gamba, harpsichord, and organ. The low range provides a resonant bass line, while the right hand can easily trill or tap out an even melody, and the instrument is capable of sustaining chords like a pipe organ. In a small evangelical church, Zubrzycki presented arrangements of works for harpsichord, gamba, and more.

Philippe Herreweghe conducting a Purcell program.
Philippe Herreweghe conducting a Purcell program.

Zubrzycki’s own arrangement of Jean de Sainte-Colombe’s Concerto No. 44, from a series for two violes esgales (equally tuned violas), sat as well on the instrument as works originally for solo, with elegant parallel motion in both hands across the whole range of the keyboard. Marin Marais’s Suite in B minor, originally for viola and harpsichord, received a unified performance in dances from the Allemande to the Gavotte. The instrument’s delicate timbre lent a simultaneously fresh and anachronistic touch to these Baroque works.

At the Warsaw Philharmonic, the NFM Leopoldinum Chamber Orchestra and participants in Wrocław’s annual master class in oratorio and cantata revisited little-performed Beethoven works under the young conductor Benjamin Bayl. While the composer’s cantatas on the death and accession of Austrian emperors are valuable as a window into the seeds which sowed the Ninth Symphony and Fidelio, there probably are good reasons why they have not entered the repertoire.

Happy Herreweghe after conducting Purcell.
Happy Herreweghe after conducting Purcell.

Beethoven’s Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, composed in 1790 but only premiered in 1884, can easily incite giggles in its stormy, tortured triumph, although the aria “Da stiegen die Menschen an’s Licht” provided a spell of skillful lyricism, particularly with the unforced, pretty tone of soprano Sylwia Gorajek. Most of the soloists’ voices, however, were not fully formed. While it was a nice gesture to give all participants a chance onstage, I would have liked to hear more from the baritone Andrzej Florczyk.

The Collegium Vocale Gent came to the towering gothic Church of St. Mary Magdalene for an all-Purcell program led by artistic director Philippe Herreweghe. In the Funeral Sentences, dedicated to Queen Mary II, trumpets and percussion played march- and canzona-interludes from the altar, while the singers and chamber orchestra created a semi-circle downstage. Among a strong ensemble of soloists, the soprano Grace Davidson stood out for her crystal tone, tastefully rendered ornamentation, and expressive attention to text.

Herreweghe alternated between phrases of sharp articulation and extended line, which the musicians executed with tremendous skill on their period instruments. Following the ruminations on death in the first half of the program, Purcell’s Hail Bright Cecilia provided some emotional relief. The ensemble did a fine job of illustrating images from a “warbling lute,” now with chirping woodwinds, to an “airy violin,” now with sinuous legato in the strings.

Members of Gabrieli Consort and Players perform Haydn's 'Creation.'
Members of Gabrieli Consort and Players perform Haydn’s ‘Creation.’

The following evening, also at St. Mary Magdalene, welcomed McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort and Players for what was, among regular festival-goers, a much anticipated performance of Haydn’s The Creation. The conductor presented his own 2006 edition, which includes a reinforced orchestra (25 winds, 15 brass, 70 strings) and modified English text.

For anyone who had the leaner, more sober interpretation of Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus in the ear, this performance tended toward the hyperbolic. Gestures such as the highly accented upward attacks of the strings in the oratorio’s prelude or the hiccupy articulation of the aria “With verdure clad, the fields appear” — also a result of attempting to stay as faithful to the English language as possible — only distracted from Haydn’s elegant, if arguably ponderous score. The baritone David Wilson-Johnson similarly chewed the scenery as Raphael, widening his eyes with every declamation of “and it was so,” going as far as to mime the appearance of insects in his aria “Straight opening her fertile womb.”

Wilson-Johnson and the young soprano Sophie Bevan, who demonstrated fine operatic technique but little attention to period style, made for an unlikely pair as Adam and Eve in the third part, although their duet “Graceful consort!” was moving in its display of sheer emotional bliss. The tenor Robert Murray was ultimately most convincing in his steadfast performance as Uriel. Whether or not one agrees with McCreesh’s aesthetic approach, the sight of the musicians spilling off the stage of the Polish Catholic church and the audience’s warm applause made clear just how much the festival’s reinvigorated program means to the city of Wrocław.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to publications such as Gramophone, MusicalAmerica.com, Opernwelt, and The New York Times.