Broken hearts and existential anguish have always made for beautiful music: take the late works of Schubert, or the aching 15th-century song by Gilles Binchois from which the rather grand title of this year’s edition, “Triste Plaisir et Douloureuse Joye” (“Sad pleasure and painful joy”), is borrowed. But never was the connection between tears and beauty stronger than in the first part of the 17th century, when musicians generally shifted from the contemplation of divine order to the expression of individual woes, and invented a whole new language of jagged rhythms and dissonances to describe them.
This repertoire is right up the street of the MAfestival, which was once called Musica Antiqua and broadly specialises in Baroque music. But Baroque music with an edge, insists artistic director Tomas Bisschop, who, although indebted to the old guard of pioneers who rediscovered this repertoire in the 1960s and 1970s, also banks on younger artists. “There’s a whole new generation of Baroque musicians coming forward,” he tells me. “They’re full of energy and very concerned about finding new ways to reach out to modern audiences. They have a right to be heard and to experiment with new ideas. And that means a right to get things wrong, too.”
Expect many new names, therefore, as well as a few unusual approaches, right from the opening concert, which will be devoted to Mozart. Hardly a composer one associates with anguish. Still, for all his sunny, classical poise, the man had his dark sides, one of them being the unrequited passion he supposedly bore for the German singer Aloysia Weber, before he settled for, and married, her younger sister Konstanze. By all accounts, Aloysia was a wonderfully expressive soprano, and Mozart composed a substantial amount of music for her. The young French diva Sabine Devieihle (pictured) lends it her silky voice, backed by flautist Alexis Kossenko and his two-year-old orchestra Les Ambassadeurs, which brings together musicians from all over Europe.
A festival about sadness in music wouldn’t be complete without at least a few songs by the Elizabethan lutenist John Dowland, a man who pushed the art of depressing lyrics and aching dissonances to such sophisticated heights that he even coined himself the punning Latin motto “Semper dolens, semper Dowland” (“Always mourning, always Dowland”). German-Ukrainian singer Dorothee Mields, who is well attuned to his dusky sound-world, will perform a selection with help from Lee Santana on the lute and Hille Perl on the viola da gamba.
Mary Magdalene and her scandalous mix of sensuality and devotion was a pet subject of Baroque composers, and as many as three concerts will be devoted to her. One of them, an exquisite but virtually unknown mass by the Liège Renaissance composer Nicolas Champion, will be presented by the young British choir Alamire, performing in Belgium for the first time.
“Remember me, but ah, forget my fate,” sings another femme fatale of the time, Carthage’s queen Dido, as her lover Aeneas sails off to found a new empire, in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. The opera, a marvel of restrained pathos, will bring the festival to a close in a concert performance by Britain’s young Restrospect Ensemble and its conductor Matthew Halls. It will be paired with John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, another miniature opera from the same period that is generally regarded as a timid, though no less attractive, sister to Purcell’s masterpiece.
Not all concerts fit into this year’s doleful theme, and the festival will thankfully have its upbeat moments, like Dominique Visse’s homage to Guillaume Costeley, a maverick figure of the French Renaissance; or the gutsy fandangos and follias performed by three Spanish brothers who go by the name of Forma Antiqva. Not to forget the festival’s by now well-oiled harpsichord competition, which over the years has revealed such luminaries to the world as Pierre Hantaï and Christophe Rousset. There’s nothing quite like the joy of hearing so many young talents on the cusp of a brilliant career. Don’t be surprised if it brings tears to your eyes.