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The Artistry of Ars Antiqua Austria, Part 1

01-13-2022 | By Rushton Paul | Issue 119

The fine artistry of Ars Antiqua Austria illustrates the excellence of historically informed performance practice today. Fifty years ago, one would search in vain for this kind of performance quality. Today AAA demonstrates "top of the pile" standards for performance on period instruments. And they've been doing it since 1989.

Franz Joseph Aumann, Chamber Music in the Abbey of St. Florian - Ars Antiqua Austria. Challenge Classics | Northstar Recording (2021 (DXD) HERE

I admit it. I'm an early music addict, particularly when performed on historic instruments. Gut strings and I are happy together. Valveless trumpets are a treat. Minimal vibrato is okay by me. So fortunate are we today to have such a broad range of excellent artists applying historically informed performance practices in the playing of the great composers of the Baroque period and earlier. I'm in a happy place.

Why am I only now finding Ars Antiqua Austria? Oh, yes. I listened principally to vinyl up until a few years ago. My collection of recordings made post-1985 was severely limited.

So, while I've missed the first 30 years of Ars Antiqua Austria's music recordings, I plan to make up for lost time. They are marvelous!

And, more fun, Ars Antiqua Austria specialize in discovering and recording the works of lesser known Austrian composers. This opens for me a new world of composers whom I don't already know, such as in the instant recording of works by Franz Joseph Aumann.

Franz Josef Aumann was an Augustinian Canon at Abbey of St. Florian, to which Ars Antiqua Austria and Northstar return for this recording. Bert van der Wolf, producer and recording engineer for Northstar, says that AAA prefers to incorporate period rooms and locations in the concept of historic performance as well as their period instruments. For this recording, he says "St. Florian's Baroque rooms are simply stunning, reverb engines avant la lettre and suit the music like a perfect glove!"

Regarding the composer of the works on this album, Gunar Letzbor, violinist and founder of AAA, writes, "Aumann was born in the Austrian town of Traismauer in 1728 and studied music in Vienna, where he came across many important musicians of his time. It has not yet been established why in 1753 he relocated to St Florian, at the age of twenty-five. He must have been unusually talented, as two years later he became Regens Chori, one year before his ordination to the priesthood. From that point he remained in the service of the monastery until his death in 1797…

"His chamber music is scattered throughout Europe. He composed "entertainment" music of the highest quality—pieces that were played for the amusement of invited guests, on special occasions, or simply between the various courses of lavish banquets."

Sophisticated and stylish were the adjectives that immediately popped into mind as I listened to the opening work on this album. They apply to both the musical compositions and the performance skill with which the music is presented. Aumann may have spent his adult life tucked away in the monastery, but his musical sensibilities reflect a cosmopolitan outlook that belies the origin of the works.

Ars Antiqua Austria plays with ease, precision and tight ensemble, if just a smidgeon over-cautiously. In this recording, they lack some of the free abandon and joyfulness of, say, the Brecon Baroque. But skilled they are. I am most interested in exploring more of their recordings and have several sitting in the queue before me. So, more to come.

(Note: my listening partner comes to my rescue. She points out, "No, they are not playing over-cautiously. They are playing so the music can be danced to. 'Parthia' is partita, a suite. In this case a suite of dances. The meter is held constant because those dancing don't fall all over each other." So, silly me, who does not dance but who should have caught the alternative spelling for partita.)

In the meantime, I recommend this recording. It is a very nice introduction. And the recording quality from Bert van der Wolf and Northstar Recording is outstanding in every respect. Exactly as I have come to expect from his recordings.

Gunar Letzbor - Direction & Violine

Also see in this series of articles about Ars Antiqua Austria:

The Artistry of Ars Antiqua Austria, Part 2

The Artistry of Ars Antiqua Austria, Part 3

All photos courtesy of Bert van der Wolf and Northstar Recording