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10 Dec 2019

A Baroque Odyssey: 40 Years of Les Arts Florissants

In 1979, the Franco-American harpsichordist and conductor, William Christie, founded an early music ensemble, naming it Les Arts Florissants, after a short opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

A Baroque Odyssey: 40 Years of Les Arts Florissants

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: William Christie and Paul Agnew

Photo credit: Oscar Ortega

 

40 years later, countless musical masterpieces from the 17th and 18th centuries which were then unknown, forgotten or unfashionable are now familiar to and beloved by audiences, and academics, as a result of Christie’s musicological excavations - often in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France - which have led to the rediscovery of countless Baroque treasures.

Honoured by scholars, critics, the listening public and the French state - he was awarded the légion d’honneur in 1993 and in 2008 was elected a member of Académie des Beaux-Arts - Christie has introduced the repertoire of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France to a wide audience. But, if Les Arts Florissants’ first triumphs were in French repertoire - Charpentier’s Actéon in 1981, and Lully’s Atys which was staged at the Opéra Comique is 1986 - then during the past four decades there have also been many acclaimed performances of Italian works by Monteverdi, Rossi, Scarlatti and Landi, and Christie has neglected neither Handel, nor Purcell whom he has championed as ‘almost more French than the French’.

This gala performance at the Barbican Hall celebrated those 40 years of performances and pioneering, taking us on a tour of the Baroque, starting in England and then hopping across to the Channel to conclude in France. With a flourish, Christie invited the three trumpeters (Guy Ferber, Gilles Rapin, Serge Tizac) of Les Arts Florissants and percussionist Marie-Ange Petit to welcome us with a vibrant, surging fanfare. The Sinfonia to Act 3 of Handel’s Atalanta introduced the rest of the instrumentalists, the violins (led by Hito Kurosaki) standing, the string sound beautifully tender and warm, and enriched by sweet oboes (Peter Tabori and Machiko Ueno) and dynamic theorbo (Thomas Dunford). Zadok the Priest was characterised by fluidity, as lovely long bow strokes swept the waves of harmony onwards, indeed almost seeming to catch out the Choir of Les Arts Florissants who leapt to their feet just in time for their stirring choral entry. Christie coaxes, rather than ‘conducts’: his performers clearly know what he wants and how to create it, and the ensemble camaraderie was plain to see.

“Welcome to all the pleasures” sang tenors Paul Agnew and Christophe Dumaux, baritone Marc Mauillon and bass Lisandro Abadie, Purcell’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day providing an apt ingress. And, the pleasures were indeed plentiful, just as the spirit was one of celebration and fun. The soloists strolled with relaxed ease to the centre-stage, Christie’s smile was omnipresent. French soprano Sandrine Piau brought lyricism and, acting vivaciously, a touch of ecstatic passion to ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ (Handel, Alcina), while Christie kept the counterpoint buoyant and didn’t dally at the cadences - just long enough for Piau to demonstrate how to execute an elegant Baroque trill.

Countertenor Christophe Dumaux is one of those who have benefited from Christie’s establishment in 2002 of Le Jardin des Voix, a biennial academy for young singers which has provided many talented newcomers with encouragement and opportunity at the start of their international careers. Dumaux’s rendition of ‘Vaghe pupille’ (Orlando) matched Piau for dramatic presence, and despite singing much of the aria on his knees, the countertenor displayed fine nuance alongside strong projection.

Lea Desandre Christine Ledroit-Perrin.jpgLea Desandre. Photo credit: Christine Ledroit-Perrin.

Since 2007, Christie has regularly passed the baton to British tenor Paul Agnew, now Associate Director of the ensemble. On this occasion Agnew was required to do double duty, following the late indisposition of tenor Marcel Beekman, and stepped into the breach with remarkable nonchalance and flair in the fittingly titled ‘I'll to thee well trod stage anon’ from Handel’s L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. ‘Or let the merry bells ring around’ from the same work offered Maud Gnidzaz an opportunity to step forward from the Chorus and demonstrate her graceful phrasing and clear tone. Another alumni from Le Jardin des Voix, French mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre, provided one of the evening’s highlights: the focus and beauty of the long lines of ‘Scherza infida’ (Ariodante) were transfixing.

Agnew stepped onto the podium for a sequence of lively numbers from Purcell’s King Arthur and The Fairy Queen in which he brought the rhythmic vigour, by turns rugged and refined, to the fore, and emphasised the energy conjured by the instrumental dialogues. But, his role as director did not preclude taking the solo spot too, and, Agnew swiftly turned his back on his players to deliver the florid lines of ‘Come all, come all ye songsters’ in nimble fashion. Just as sprightly were the trumpets’ ‘echoes’ in the trio, ‘May the God of Wit inspire’, and ‘Sing while we trip it’ in which Piau led the chorus of Fairies through their dainty Dance before delivering ‘Now the night is chased away’ with tenderness and clarity.

Marc-Mauillon-1.-©-Inanis-_-Photo-site.jpgMarc Mauillon. Photo credit: Inanis.

So, to France, after the interval, beginning with Piau’s rich-toned rendition of Charpentier’s ‘Que mes divins concerts’ ( Les Arts florissants) followed by ‘Amour du ciel at de la terre’ in which the choral voices blended beautifully even as the rhythms pulled them this way and that. But, it was the men who held the spotlight at the start of the second half. The extent of Christie’s influence and impact was further confirmed by the exquisite timbre and eloquence of Marc Mauillon (another Le Jardins des Voix ‘graduate’) in Honoré d’Ambruis’ ‘Le doux silence de nos bois’, to which Dunford provided a plump and persuasive complement. Here was another newly discovered treasure, an air composed by the French composer and singing teacher, previously unknown to me, but who Grove tells me published 23 airs during the last four decades of the 17th century in various collections including his Livre d’airs avec les seconds couplets en diminution mesurez sur la basse continue (Paris, 1685).

Christie resumed his position at the helm for the Prelude and ‘Dormons, dormons tous’ from Lully’s Atys with Agnew taking his place alongside Mauillon, Abadie and Jonathan Spicher, who stepped forward from the Chorus. But, it was Rameau who dominated the latter part of the performance, with an extended sequence of numbers from Les Fêtes d’Hébé ­- an honest and direct ‘Pour rendre à mon hymen tout l’Olympe propice’ by Desandre - Hippolyte at Aricie - strong, assertive singing from Mauillon in ‘Ah! Qu’on daigne du moins’ followed by ‘Puisque Pluton est inflexible’ - and Platée. Rameau’s only comic opera provided an ‘excuse’, if such was needed, for further high-spirits with the violins (led in the second half by Emmanuel Resche-Caserta) leaping to their feet for the Overture, Agnew demonstrating agility at the top of his tenor and on the dance floor in ‘Que ce séjour est agréable’, and Piau ruffling her coiffure and rippling through the virtuosity of ‘Formons les plus brilliant concerts.

A sequence from Les Indes galantes brought the party to a close, with Les Arts Florissant illuminating the coloristic richness of Rameau’s sparkling box of exotic delights. But, that was not quite the end: the full ensemble came together for two encores, Rameau’s ‘La naissance d’Osiris’ and the final chorus from Charpentier’s Les Arts florissants. It was a long evening, but who would deny Christie, Agnew and their colleagues a little self-indulgence after 40 years of repertoire-revolutionising music-making.

Claire Seymour

A Baroque Odyssey: 40 Years of Les Arts Florissants

Les Arts Florissants : William Christie (director), Paul Agnew (director/tenor), Sandrine Piau (soprano), Lea Desandre (mezzo-soprano), Christophe Dumaux (countertenor), Marc Mauillon (baritone), Lisandro Abadie (bass)

Handel : Sinfonia to Act III from Atalanta, ‘Zadok the priest’ HWV 258;Purcell: Overture and ‘Welcome to all the pleasures’ from Ode for St Cecilia's Day 1683; Handel: ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ from Alcina, ‘Ah! stigie larve, ah! scellerati spettri!’ from Orlando, ‘I'll to thee well trod stage anon’ and ‘Or let the merry bells ring around’ from L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, ‘Scherza infida’ and ‘Bramo aver mille vite’ from Ariodante; Purcell: Prelude to Act II, ‘Come all, come all ye songsters’; Prelude, ‘May the God of Wit inspire’, ‘Echo’, ‘Now join your warbling voices’, ‘Sing while we trip it’, Fairies Dance and ‘Now the night is chased away’ fromThe Fairy Queen; Passacaglia from King Arthur; Charpentier: ‘Que mes divins concerts’ and ‘Amour du ciel et de la terre’ from Les Arts florissants;Honoré d’Ambruis: Le doux silence de nos bois;Lully: Prelude to Act III and ‘Dormons, dormons tous’ from Atys; Rameau: ‘Pour rendre à mon hymen tout l’Olympe propice’ from Les Fêtes d’Hébé, ‘Ah! Qu’on daigne du moins’ and ‘Puisque Pluton est inflexible’ from Hippolyte at Aricie, Overture, ‘Que ce séjour est agréable’, Air pour les fous gays, ‘Formons les plus brillants concerts’ and ‘Aux langueurs d’Apollon’ from Platée, ‘Entrée II, Les incas du Pérou’, Nouvelle Entrée, ‘Les sauvages’ and ‘Forêts paisibles’ from Les Indes galantes.

Barbican Hall, London; Sunday 8th December 2019.

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