Review: Wratislavia Cantans, Italian Style
September 30, 2013
The 48th Wratislavia Cantans International Festival of oratorio and cantata music was held Sept. 6-15 in the southwestern city of Wroc³aw. This year’s festival was organized by a new artistic director, Giovanni Antonini.
A talented flutist who heads the early music ensemble Il Giardino Armonico, Antonini had almost two years to plan this year’s Wratislavia Cantans. Antonini is Italian and his idea was to take audiences on a musical voyage to Italy. There used to be a time when every self-respecting musician and composer felt compelled to visit Italy at some point to find out about the latest trends in music and art.
In the festival’s opening concert Antonini brought together Bach and Handel in masterpieces which the two Baroque music giants wrote in their early years. It proved to be a good warm-up for audiences, who enjoyed hearing Bach’s cantata Aus der Tiefe rufe ich, Herr, zu dir and Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. The pieces were performed with gusto by Il Giardino Armonico and the Wroc³aw Philharmonic Choir with soloists, including superb soprano Roberta Invernizzi.
The original spirit of the Wratislavia Cantans festival was revived during concerts played by the Kölner Kammerchor and Collegium Cartusianum from Germany (Musical Vespers: Giovanni Gabrieli and Heinrich Schütz). The Vox Luminis ensemble then gave classy renditions of responsories by Gesualdo da Venosa and Stabat Mater by Scarlatti.
Less impressive was a performance by Giovanni Bietti, who accompanied singers Gemma Bertagnolli and Furio Zanasi. What had been intended as a light and amusing concert combined with a wine tasting turned out to be neither light nor amusing. It took place in a local synagogue the day after Yom Kippur, so the timing and venue were not exactly fortunate and the concert’s quality did not live up to Wratislavia Cantans standards.
When 12 cellists led by the charismatic Giovanni Sollima played a concert at the University Church, the audience was divided, with responses ranging from disapproval and outrage to euphoria. This was probably the first time pieces made famous by rock band Nirvana were played at the church. Sollima later reappeared in the festival’s closing concert as the composer and performer of Folktales, an excellent suite for cellos and orchestra. But the highlight of that final concert was Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia for Eight Voices and Orchestra, performed by the Wroc³aw Philharmonic Orchestra and the famous Swingle Singers. The concert brought out all the dynamism of the masterpiece and was like a grand finale with a fireworks display. Much of the credit goes to conductor Ed Spanjaard, who mastered Berio’s postmodern score.
The festival spanned music from the Renaissance until the 20th century, as intended by Andrzej Markowski, the festival’s founder, who loved juxtaposing early music masterpieces with contemporary work. Halfway through the festival, audiences heard a concert featuring a young but already famous Russian soprano named Yulia Lezhneva. Accompanied by the Wroc³aw Baroque Orchestra, Lezhneva sang solo parts from the motet Exsultate, jubilate by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and a concerto aria by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.
In a way, this year’s Wratislavia Cantans festival was a mixed bag. Although the overall idea and titles of individual concerts were meant to assist music lovers in their music journey, they turned out to be more about marketing than music exploration. It was the first time Wratislavia Cantans was held under a new artistic director and it was evident that Antonini lacked experience in organizing a project of such magnitude. What I felt was missing were grander oratorios and cantatas, except for Betulia Liberata, the only oratorio written by Mozart, which was beautifully performed during the festival. But Antonini is primarily a chamber musician and so we will probably have to wait until the next Wratislavia Cantans to hear such grand pieces. Hopefully the festival’s tradition of holding concerts in churches and the unique repertoire featuring oratorios and cantatas will protect it against global pulp culture.