This year is a special one for Antwerp’s well-established early music festival, Laus Polyphoniae. The event celebrated its twentieth anniversary this year with a programme themed upon Queen Elizabeth I. The festival, which ran from 23 August to 1 September, is run by AMUZ – an international music centre based in Antwerp, which is lucky enough to have the sumptuous setting of the former church of St Augustine as its headquarters. This venue, along with the countless other splendid churches in the city make Antwerp an ideal location to host an early music festival.
What sets Laus Polyphoniae apart from many European early music festivals is its focus on Renaissance repertoire. This year, audiences were treated to an enviable lineup performing works that linked in some way to the Virgin Queen. In the first half of the festival, international audiences enjoyed performances from Emma Kirkby, Stile Antico, Fretwork, The Tallis Scholars and Phantasm, performing works by Dowland, Tallis, Byrd and many more besides.
I arrived in Antwerp for the last few days of the festival. Gallicantus performed in the former church venue at the AMUZ headquarters. The group presented their programme ‘Dialogues of Sorrow’ – a collection of passions on the death of Prince Henry, which included three pieces whose only surviving source is in Christchurch Cathedral in Oxford. The pieces are rarely performed as the bass part has not survived, so the group performed a version with carefully composed bass parts by Francis Steele. The programme, which consisted of pieces by a range of Renaissance composers such as John Coprario, Robert Ramsey and John Ward, as well as ‘Contristatus est David’ by Richard Dering – a piece composed in Antwerp.
Later that evening, in another resplendent venue – this time St Carolus Borromeuskerk, Jordi Savall led a performance by Hespèrion XXI playing a programme entitled ‘The teares of the muses’ – a mix of In Nomines and secular dance pieces. Sensitively and beautifully performed, as always, my favourite aspect of the concert came at the end, in the many encores that followed. Here, Savall was visibly relaxed and clearly enjoying improvising with his musical colleagues. These bonus pieces demonstrated the group’s impeccable ensemble playing.
The festival concluded on the Sunday evening with a spectacular piece of programming. I Fagiolini, the local Octopus Kamerkoor, The City Musick and The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble were all brought together under the same roof (specifically that of St Pauluskerk) under the baton of Robert Hollingworth to perform the Striggio mass and Tallis’s famous Spem in Alium. These pieces packed a punch, with so many performers having a suitably overwhelming effect upon the audience. The Striggio was, however, broken up with a number of a cappella pieces which, although they provided contrast to the grand sound of the larger ensemble pieces, felt a little out of place within the grand musical set-up.
Overall, though, the festival is heaven for Renaissance lovers who perhaps are fatigued from the more prevalent baroque festivals across Europe. The fact that the festival programme for the week is a petite and beautifully designed hardback book is indicative of the nature of the festival: a high-quality beautiful treasure. Next year’s festival will run from 22 to 31 August, with a theme of Claudio Monteverdi; book your Eurostar now!