Les Surprises: Baroque Christmas around the World

Baroque Christmas around the World
Les Surprises, Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas
St John’s, Smith Square. 18 December 2018

I have reviewed the French group Les Surprises several times on CD, and in concerts during festivals in France, but this was their first visit to the UK. Their well-chosen sequence of music was from the Baroque era from France and Quebec, Spain and Ibero-America, China and Italy. Five instrumentalists supported soprano Eugénie Lefebvre, her clear and focused voice excelling in a wide range of musical styles. I particularly liked her distinctive diction, with consonants that many English singers would envy.

I hope the rest of the audience realised as quickly as I did that the second section of the first half, noted in the programme as music from China, turned out to be the distinctive music of the Spanish New World. When the Chinese music eventually appeared after the interval, the geographical location was very obvious, helped by a gong, a Tibetan bowl, little bells and some very Chinese-sounding music composed by Jea Joseph Marie Amiot, a French Jesuit missionary who spent the last 40 years of his life in China during the long reign of the Qianlong Emperor.  As well as translating the 6th-century BCE Art of War into French, he introduces the music of Rameau to the Chinese court, and introduced a number of Chinese musical instruments to France, including the free-reed shung, together with the yo-yo. We heard his instrumental Divertissement chinois and a Chinese interpretation of an Ave Maria, both fascinating pieces combining Chinese and French musical idioms.

Not surprisingly, the Spanish and New World pieces were the most exciting, the distinctive rhythms in pieces by Duron, Cabanilles (a suite of instrumental dances, including a beautifully chromatic Passacalle), and Tomas de Torrejon y Velasco, a Spanish composer who moved to Peru in the retinue of the Spanish Viceroy and held a number of administrative posts before becoming  maestro de capilla at Lima Cathedral where he remained for 50 years. The opening French section featured music from Canada and the massive Livre d’orgue de Montréal, discovered in 1978.

Their Christmas tour finished in Italy, the highlight being Tarquinio Merulo’s extraordinarily moving 1636 Canzonetta spirituale sopra la Nanna (Hor ch’è tempo di dormire). Most of the piece is accompanied by the gently hypnotic rocking movement of two bass notes, a semitone apart, as Mary’s lullaby to the baby Jesus foresees the horrors of his eventual death in the second half of each verse. Only at the end does Mary accept the fate of her son, who she predicts she will meet ‘in paradise’. Before this, the instrumentalists of Les Surprises (Laura Duthuillé, oboe/flute, Gabriel Ferry, violin, Juliette Guignard, viola da gamba, Etienne Galletier, theorbo/guitar and director Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas, playing organ and harpsichord.

Based on my previous experiences of Les Surprises (some reviews here), it was no surprise that this was an extremely impressive performance, well-programmed and presented, and performed beautifully. A word too, for the impressive chamber organ used (one of the case carvings pictured below), built by Andrew Wooderson, and a rare example of such an organ where the bass notes can be heard clearly.