‘Bach goes to Paris’
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, William Christie
The Anvil, Basingstoke. 28 June 2017
Campra Suite: Les Fêtes Vénetiennes
JCF Fischer Suite no. 7 from Le journal de printemps
Bach Suite no. 4
Rameau Suite: Les Indes Galantes
Bach Suite no. 3
‘Bach goes to Paris’? No, of course he didn’t, but in a way Paris, or at least, France, came to Bach, through the experience of other musicians and of studying scores, notably De Grigny’s Livre d’Orgue, which he copied out by hand. But, if he had have gone to Paris, I wonder what he would have made of Campra’s Les Fêtes Vénetiennes, an early example of the opéra-ballet genre. Much revised and revived after its 1710 opening, it clocked up around 300 performances over the following 50 years. With sections with titles such as the Triumph of Folly over Reason during the Carnival, Serenades and gamblers, and The acrobats of St Mark’s Square, or Cupid the acrobat, the lively series of depictions of carnival time in Paris gave a wonderful introduction to the livelier side of French music of the period. Particularly notable were Stephen Farr’s delightful little harpsichord twiddles during the rests in the Gigue, and Jude Carlton’s inventive percussion including, at one stage, castanets. it ends in a surprisingly elegant Chaconne – an example of French bon gout that was perhaps absent in some of the earlier moments.
The influence of French music on German composers included the likes of the keyboard virtuosos Muffat and Johann Casper Ferdinand Fischer. The latter’s Le journal de printemps opens with a typical French Ouverture before another example of a ground bass piece, a noble Passacaille, contrasting the full orchestra with passages for two violins and viola.
The full grandeur of a French Ouverture, complete with trumpets and timpani, came with the opening of Bach’s so-called Orchestral Suite in D (No 4). Originally all five sections were grouped under the single title of the opening Ouverture, the four lively French dances that followed being considered an extension of the opening. In typical Lully style, the Ouverture consisted of two distinct parts, a grand fanfare like passage followed by a brisk fugue (here taken at quite a lick by William Christie) before returning to the opening grandeur. This piece featured some outstanding playing from the OAE’s three oboists Katharina Spreckelsen, Sarah Humphries, and Bethan White (the latter playing a tenor oboe), and the two bassoonists, Rebecca Hammond and Sally Jackson – the latter in particular in the Bourrée II, with its notorious rapidly running bass line. It was nice to see William Christie leaving the woodwind players to just get on with it in the Menuet, as he just stood and watched them, no doubt with some admiration at their distinctive application of notes inégales – the French manner of applying a rhythmic lilt to notes that, in the score, look as though they should be regular.
Mainstream French music came with another suite, this time taken from Rameau’s wonderfully exotic and evocative 1735 Les Indes Galantes. Using a rather smaller orchestra than Rameau would have luxuriated in, the OAE nonetheless gave a grand interpretation of the colouful musical depictions of Rameau’s ballet héroïque, with extracts mainly from Les fleurs. Bach’s Orchestral Suite in D (No 3) complete the evening, given a very French interpretation by William Christie, with several distinctive French Baroque cadential trills in evidence. The extent to which Christie frenchified both Bach Suites was perhaps understandable, given the premise of the evening, but his frequently extended ritardandi were occasionally a bit overdone, given the rhythmic drive of the music, and to my mind at least, were not particularly in the French style.
A pre-concert talk by violinist and OAE leader Margaret Faultless and flautist Lisa Beznosiuk revealed some of the complexities of the performance of French Baroque music. A couple of days after their Basingstoke appearance, the OAE performed the same concert in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall with a live broadcast on BBC Radio 3. That performance can be heard for the next three weeks or so here. It’s well worth listening to, and includes some comments from William Christie on his approach to the music.