Summer Festivities of Early Music 2011

Frank Kuznik looks forward to the latest edition of Prague's leading Baroque music festival

Prague's premier Baroque music festival gets underway at Prague Castle on Friday, July 22 with music from 17th-century Venice. The opening honors this year go to Germany's Musica Fiata, the first of seven early music ensembles that will bring period instruments, refined musical tastes and a rich variety of foreign flavors to some of the city's grandest venues over the next two weeks.

Now in its 12th year, the Summer Festivities of Early Music (Letní slavnosti staré hudby in Czech) is also Prague's most erudite festival. The organizers dig deep into medieval and Renaissance manuscripts to build programs that follow a particular style or trend, or the development of a form like the concertato, the focus of Friday's concert. And they bring some of Europe's best early music specialists to town to perform them.

The festival is also noteworthy for its superb matchups of music and settings. Venues like the Castle's Ball Game Hall and Spanish Hall, Troja Chateau, St. Agnes's Convent and Břevnov Monastery add another dimension to the concerts, with historic atmospherics that resonate with the music.

"It's really unique that way," says Mark Vanscheeuwijck, a Baroque cellist and professor of musicology at the University of Oregon who serves as an advisor to a number of European Baroque festivals, and wrote the program notes for this one. "Most festivals in Europe ignore the importance of putting the music in the right kind of historic and acoustic settings. It's like eating a good meal with the wrong wine."

The theme of this year's festival is "Festa!" ("Feast!"), music composed for celebrations. That covers a lot of ground, ranging from comedy in the court of King Louis XIV to 18th-century Peruvian sacred music. There are also excursions to Renaissance Spain, the court of Burgundy, Roman and Venetian churches and a Biedermeier salon.

Other visiting ensembles include Capella de Ministrers from Spain, Capilla Flamenca from Belgium, Musica Tempura from Holland and Laterna Magica, a trio from Belgium that features two members who play the csakan, a keyed recorder that has fallen into obscurity.

Many obscure or forgotten instruments show up at the festival, along with virtuosos who know how to play them. Doron David Sherwin, a world-renowned master of the cornett (an early wind instrument), will be at the festival this year to join harpsichordist Barbara Maria Willi for a program of 16th-century Italian sacred music.

Sherwin is also known for his improvisation skills, a talent prized mostly in jazz circles nowadays. But it was a key feature of early music.

"Amateurs played only what was written on the page," notes Vanscheeuwijck. "Professionals played that, plus improvisation. It was part of the tradition at the time to improvise ornamentation for the music. We'll have some of that in this festival, with Sherwin and Raphaël Collingnon, a pianist who is playing with Laterna Magica."

The festival finale, at the Castle's Spanish Hall, is worthy of its origins at Versailles. Two singers and three music ensembles, including Prague's own Collegium Marianum, will present operatic selections by Lully, Charpentier and other French composers. For aficionados, this is a great opportunity to see pieces performed as they were in the court of Louis XIV, down to the elaborate gestures used by the actor/singers. For everybody else, the costumes, captivating music and regal setting should provide a great evening's entertainment.

• See the official Letní slavnosti staré hudby website for the complete schedule and program details

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