In a city boasting a thriving opera company and some of the most successful choruses in the world, it’s rather surprising that there is a dearth of quality Renaissance and Baroque performances. Such is the case in Riga, where the works of Bach, Buxtehude, and Handel are heard infrequently compared to more contemporary repertoire.
It was a breath of fresh air to hear a performance of the Rare Fruits Council, a Baroque ensemble from Spain, on Nov. 20. Featuring renowned Argentinian soprano Maria Cristina Kiehr, the ensemble performed a lively selection of cantatas and sonatas by Dietrich Buxtehude. Riga’s Small Guild Hall was an appropriate setting for the event, as the ornate hall matched the florid ornamentation of the program.
Founded in 1996 by violinist Manfredo Kraemer, the Rare Fruits Council has developed a reputation for their vivid interpretations of Baroque string music; their recordings of Heinrich Biber and J.S. Bach are highly acclaimed. Its members have been heard across the world in world-class ensembles like Les Arts Florissants and Concerto Koln.
Kraemer’s interpretations of early Baroque music have been praised for their vigor and intensity, and that fire was on full display in Riga. His virtuosic playing was highlighted in three sonatas by Buxtehude as well as one by the little-known composer Jan Adam Reincken. Matching Kraemer in dexterity if not intensity was the ensemble’s second violinist, Ricart Pellicer. Their duets were a high point of the evening, remarkably accurate with beautiful phrasing.
Equally impressive was Kiehr, the featured soloist on four Buxtehude cantatas. Kiehr has been heard around the world as a favored soloist of Rene Jacobs and Philippe Herreweghe, and her operatic career has included works of Monteverdi, Purcell, Gluck, and Cesti.
Kiehr’s vocal tone and flexibility were a perfect match for the cantatas of Buxtehude, relatively short pieces that demand tremendous agility to match the virtuosity of the string accompaniment. Throughout several difficult passages, Kiehr maintained her pristine soprano color; thoughtful articulation and phrasing heightened the nuances of the texts.
The Rare Fruits Council performance is the latest example of the Riga Bach Festival’s efforts to bring the world’s finest Baroque specialists to Latvia, a nation that is unfortunately devoid of early music performances. In recent years, the Festival has attracted renowned soloists and ensembles such as Jordi Savall, Ton Koopman, Collegium Vocale Gent, and the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin.
The Bach Festival’s website notes that its goal of presenting high-quality Baroque music is a natural response to the era of Soviet occupation, when Western classical music was not extensively performed due to censorship and artistic restrictions. Beyond programs featuring guest artists from other countries, Festival Director Aina Kalnciema has worked to include local performers including students and faculty at the Jazeps Vitols Latvian Music Academy.
Kalnciema’s Festival has thrived in spite of the increasing financial difficulties for small arts organizations in Latvia. According to Kalnciema, “it becomes harder each year to organize the Festival … We have always kept it at a high standard and maintained an enthusiastic audience.”
The troubles facing the Riga Bach Festival are not unique; with so many high-caliber musical events in Riga, there is stiff competition for funding and donors. Foreign embassies that previously supported performances of their national artists have offered little help in recent years, and major international brands have turned to larger events like the popular Positivus Festival for lucrative sponsorships.
Nonetheless, Kalnciema looks to the future of the festival undeterred. She is currently writing requests for sponsors and contemplating invitations to outstanding ensembles and soloists from Belgium, France, Italy, and Spain. Her ideal future for the festival would include additional masterclasses and student competitions to inspire interest in early music among Latvian music students.
The next concert of the Riga Bach Festival will feature the Munich Baroque Soloists in a program of Telemann, Vivaldi, and Fasch. That performance can be heard on December 1st at 7:00pm in Riga’s Small Guild Hall (Amatu iela 3).