fri 23/08/2019

William Christie, Les Arts Florissants, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

William Christie, Les Arts Florissants, Barbican

William Christie, Les Arts Florissants, Barbican

A glorious spread from the French baroque specialists

Thank God for Les Arts Florissants. Without the assiduous efforts of this pretty, chic French ensemble and its expat American conductor William Christie, one of the great periods in musical history, that of the French high baroque, would still be shrouded in darkness. What would we now know of the Debussy of the 18th century, Jean-Philippe Rameau, or of the silky solemnity of Henry Desmarest, or of the festive André Campra, or of that arse-licker par excellence Jean-Baptiste Lully? Virtually nothing. And my ears for one would be the poorer.

Last night we received portraits of each of these Ancien Régime composers at the Barbican, where the pioneering band are celebrating their 30th anniversary. Hearing them play this repertoire was like hearing the Dresden Staatskapelle play Strauss or the Vienna Phil play Bruckner; it was what they were born to do. The French Baroque gave the ensemble their name and established their renown.
 
Even something like the Usquequo Domine by Desmarest (1708) that began the programme, not within my or many people’s foot-tapping repertoire, was performed like a staple classic. Of course, for them, it is. But so it should be for us all. Within this Grand Motet’s walls is music of such immediacy and raw emotional power that it did seem a crime that I – and probably most of the audience - had only just come across the work for the first time last night.
We open on a bleak, searing emotional landscape. These are hot shifting sands. The trilling, passacaglia bass-line meandered its slow course through the pained choral line like molten lava. We are baked by these feelings of guilt and desperation (taken from Psalm 12), then cooled by the liquid sounds of the ensuing trio aria of tenor Cyril Auvity, baritone Marc Mauillon and soprano Amel Brahim-Djelloul (who was looking like a kinky cardinal, swathed in a Richelieu-red dress that stopped short of her neckline).
 
The feeling of despair gives way to one of triumphalism in Campra’s Exaudiat te Dominus (1703). It isn’t, however, ever the trumpeting brilliance that impresses in these court works – though the trumpeting was very fine last night. It is the moments when the sound is reduced to a wintry spareness, when we are faced with a gossamer-like vulnerability, that the real excitement comes: the two flutes becoming breath, the two tenors flying high and reduced to a whisper.
These are virtuosic works and require virtuosic efforts. Soloists, choir and conductor are kept on their toes. Auvity’s stratospheric climbs were astonishing, as were his starling-like eddies through the ornamentation. But perhaps the most virtuosic act was that of casting. The Grand Motets of the French High Baroque are the Kama Sutra of vocal combination. Now we have a baritone with choir, now two tenors with a baritone, now a soprano and two tenors; in Rameau’s Deus noster refugium (1714) there are six soloists in every position imaginable.
The lineup was without a weak link. Between the expressive warmth of baritone Mouillon, the outward beauty of Djelloul, the introspection of soprano Emmanuelle de Negri, the good humour of baritone Alain Buet and the haute-contre impressiveness of Auvity, one had it all.
In programmes like these Rameau is most often crowned the musical king. But in his offering, there was something lacking. It was full of colour, for sure, but ringing a little hollow. And so it was with the Lully Te Deum too. In Lully's case, court servility probably had something to do with the feeling of glibness. For Rameau – the classic late-starter: he wrote his first opera at 49 – inexperience was most likely to blame. We got a sense of Rameau at his peak, however, in the second encore, a choral number from his opera Les Indes Galantes, which had the choir creeping forth in their inimitable way, first to seduce, then to scorch, then to soothe. Heaven.

Information on Les Arts Florissants' forthcoming concerts can be found here. For more on the rest of the Barbican season, click here.

 

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