wed 24/04/2024

OAE, Christie, St John's Smith Square | reviews, news & interviews

OAE, Christie, St John's Smith Square

OAE, Christie, St John's Smith Square

Vibrant programme exploring Bach’s French connection

William Christie conducting at the PromsChris Christodoulou

William Christie chose a suitably light and breezy programme for this warm summer evening’s concert at St. John’s Smith Square. The concert was titled “Bach goes to Paris”, with works chosen to highlight the connections between the German master and his French contemporaries.

But, more significantly, they showcased Christie’s deep affinity with French Baroque music, and the vibrancy and passion he brings to this repertoire.

For Christie, Baroque music is always about dance, so it was fitting that much of this music derived from ballet. Christie gestures broadly from the podium, but rarely to make significant changes of tempo. Instead, he indicates dynamic swells, or weighs downbeats, giving the music shape and flow, but always within a Baroque sense order. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was string-heavy here, with just a single line of woodwind standing behind, a percussionist, and three trumpeters for the Bach. The strings played in rich, broad phrases, running smoothly one into the next. Yet that dance spirit always flowed through the music, thanks to their strong accents and clear rhythmic profiles.

Les fetes venitiennes by WatteauLes fêtes vénitiennes by the French composer André Campra is a ballet-cum-opera depicting the carnival celebrations of Venice (Watteau's painting of the same title pictured right). The suite of dances presented here is light and elegant, with propulsive rhythms, but always driven by the melodies. In a typically bold intervention, Christie added percussion to the score, with successive movements featuring tambourine and field drum, and one even accompanied by castanets. The historical veracity is surely questionable, but it fits perfectly into the conductor’s dance-inspired readings. Percussion was also added to the Suite No. 7 from Le journal du printemps by Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer, although here more discreetly, the drum brought in to make movement endings more conclusive. Fischer was apparently popular in France, where this work was published, although, like Bach, it seems unlikely he went there. His music is of a more Teutonic cast, but Christie still applied his lightness of touch. One particularly effective device was reducing the strings occasionally to just one or two desks, and in one movement, a section repeat was played alone by the back desk of the first violins – definitely not in the score.

Rameau’s dances from Les Indes galantes opened the second half. Here, Christie sought even lighter textures, while retaining his fleet tempos, a real challenge for the orchestra. But the woodwinds in particular shone. One movement was a piccolo solo, beautifully executed, and another featured the oboe section, including a precursor of the cor anglais. Curious, but again skilfully negotiated. Three consecutive movements of the suite are “Airs”, and Christie made another audacious addition, with a whistle/wind effect, the percussionist blowing into something too small to identify to create the sound, both through and between each of the movements.

Each half ended with a Bach Orchestral Suite, the first with No. 4, the second No. 3. Trumpets and timpani joined the ensemble, adding a decisive rhythmic profile, but otherwise blending well with the strings. The formal sophistication of this music obliged Christie to intervene more, imposing sudden tempo changes and occasionally slowing into cadences. He again adopted fleet tempos and buoyant phrasing. That was harder to achieve in this more contrapuntal music, and the string ensemble wasn’t always as tight as in the French works. Still, the music remained as light as ever, especially Air on the G String. Christie again opted for a brisk, even tempo, with broad, expressive phrases from the violins, and adding the subtlest of ornaments at the repeats. But the rhythms remained strong, and the playing elegant – Christie guided, here as ever, by the spirit of the dance.


Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters