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Youth, experience and a warm reception: our visit to the Glasperlenspiel Festival in Tartu, Estonia

Youth, experience and a warm reception: our visit to the Glasperlenspiel Festival in Tartu, Estonia
Youth, experience and a warm reception: our visit to the Glasperlenspiel Festival in Tartu, Estonia
Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 5 - Hans Christian Aavik, Neeme Järvi, Glasperlenspiel Sinfonietta - Glasperlenspiel Festival at St John's Church, Tartu
Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 5 – Hans Christian Aavik, Neeme Järvi, Glasperlenspiel Sinfonietta – Glasperlenspiel Festival at St John’s Church, Tartu

Named for Hermann Hesse’s last full-length novel, Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game), the Glasperlenspiel Festival in Estonia is just two year shy of its 30th birthday. Founded in 1996 by composer Peeter Vähi and producer Tiina Jokinan, the festival fills St John’s Church in Tartu with music for a long weekend every July. This year the festival runs from 4 to 9 July, with eleven events spread across the six days.

St John’s Church dates from the 14th century and is notable for its brick construction and the enormous number of terracotta statues that featured on the exterior; there were originally over a thousand and some 200 survive. The church was badly damaged by fire in World War Two and left semi-derelict for some 50 years before being restored in the 1990s, creating a handsome wooden-roofed interior with a very fine and sympathetic acoustic.

This year’s festival line-up includes Gidon Kremer (violin) and Stathis Karapanos (flute) with Kremerata Baltica in music by Vivaldi, Beethoven, Schubert, Grazyna Bacewicz and Sofia Guubaidulina; the Swiss ensemble Aventura Barocca with Israeli mezzo-soprano Maya Amir in a programme mixing Baroque music with that of the Middle East; the Estonian vocal ensemble, Vox Clamantis, directed by Jaan-Eik Tulve in a programme of Gregorian chant dedicated to St John the Baptist, including the Tournai Mass; the contemporary ethnic music group Zetod in a programme of  music from Setoland; Quatuor Akilone from France in Mozart, Boccherini and Arriaga; the Estonia National Male Choir in music by Estonian composer Rein Rannap; the New Baltic Sound Quartet (violin, cello, and two percussion) in contemporary programme with an Estonian cast to it including one of Peeter Vähi’s pieces; the Lithuanain ensemble Musica Humana

And tucked away in the late-night slot on Friday 5 July, Ben Vonberg-Clark (tenor), Jonathan Eyers (baritone) and Nigel Foster (piano) in Out of the Shadows, the programme of my vocal music that we originally premiered in February 2023. The church’s acoustic proved ideal for vocal music, and the audience, which mixed festival regulars with visitors including some from the Estonian LGBTQ community, gave the music a really warm reception.

Robert Hugill: Out of the Shadows - Nigel Foster, Ben Vonberg-Clark, Jonathan Eyers - Glasperlenspiel Festival at St John's Church, Tartu
Robert Hugill: Out of the Shadows – Nigel Foster, Ben Vonberg-Clark, Jonathan Eyers
Glasperlenspiel Festival at St John’s Church, Tartu

We were lucky enough to be able to catch the festival’s opening concert when a packed house heard veteran Estonian-born conductor Neeme Järvi conducting the Glasperlenspiel Sinfonietta in a programme of Haydn, Mozart and Albinoni including Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major with Estonian violinist Hans Christian Aavik. The evening might easily have been called youth and experience, the soloist is 26 and Maestro Järvi is 87. On this showing, Järvi’s music making is as vital as ever and he seemed to have a warmly responsive relationship with the orchestra and with the soloist.

Things began with Haydn’s Serenade for Strings, Op.3 No. 5 which showcased the sinfonietta’s light and delicate sound, almost aetherial at times, full of elegance and style with the acoustic lending the sound a lovely clarity. In the violin concerto, Hans Christian Aavik played with lithe elegance and a graceful clarity of sound. He created a fine sense of long-breathed line and seemed to have responsively enjoyable relationship with Järvi, the pair’s sheer enjoyment of the music conveying itself in the performance. After the interval, Albinoni’s Adagio in G, where the sound quality had an almost suave elegance to it. We ended with Mozart’s Symphony No. 29, with sprightly vivacity in the first movement, graceful transparency in the second and ending with fast finale that was full of engaging energy. There was an encore, Paderewski’s Minuet.

Next year’s festival runs from 10 to 15 July 2025, and will feature the Glasperlenspiel Sinfonietta, the European Union Baroque Orchestra, Weiner Kammersymphonie and Kremerata Baltic, a return from Hans Christian Aavik with his piano trio, plus Estonian composer Märt-Matis Lill.


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