A Baroque Odyssey: Les Arts Florissants @ 40

A Baroque Odyssey
40 Years of Les Arts Florissants
William Christie, Paul Agnew
The Barbican, 8 December 2019

Eavesdropping on a birthday party can be fun, even if you sometimes wish it wouldn’t go on for quite so long. This one did, apparently finishing around 10.30, although I had to leave before 10 to catch my last train home. In celebration of their proud 40-year history, Les Arts Florissants are touring a mixed programme of Handel, Purcell and the French composers Charpentier, d’Ambruis, Lully and Rameau. Under their founding Director William Christie and  Associate Musical Director Paul Agnew, five soloists, a large orchestra and 23-strong choir demonstrated just why they have been so important over the past 40 years. Like any good party, it is perhaps best to leave what happened in the room, in the room, so I will not attempt a critical review – which is probably just as well because I am not sure that I could think of anything critical to say.

The comprehensive programme was a potpourri of musical delights from the Les Arts Florissants repertoire that Barbican audiences have enjoyed for many years. They were one of the first groups to perform French Baroque music in England, often in concert performances of operas staged in France. They have also opened English ears to their take on music of our own Purcell and Handel. The first half was devoted to English music, and opened with a splendidly dramatic Act III Sinfonia from Handel’s Atalanta, played on the three trumpeters and timpani. It served as an introduction to Zadok the Priest and, perhaps appropriately, Welcome to all the pleasures from Purcell’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day. During the following sequence of extracts from Handel operas, Paul Agnew, one of the early singers in the choir of Les Arts Florissants and now their distinguished Associate Musical Director, took over the conducting. An indisposed tenor meant that he also had several singing roles throughout the evening.

William Christie and Paul Agnew

The Handel opera sequence demonstrated the wealth of singing and acting talent, both combined in the performances by soprano Sandrine Piau, starting with her coquettish Tornami a vagheggiar from Alcina. Countertenor Christophe Dumaux took advantage of the dramatic possibilities of Ah! stigie larve, ah! scellerati spettri!‘ from Orlando, singing for much of the time on his knees. Paul Agnew stepped from the podium to sing I’ll to thee well trod stage anon and Or let the merry bells ring around from L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. This was followed by what was, for me at least, one of the vocal highlights of the whole evening, the excellent singing of award-winning mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre who made her international debut with William Christies Le Jardin des Voix. Although her endearingly modest stage presence suggested somebody on work-experience (which, to an extent, she was), her singing portrayed real musical confidence in Scherza infida from Ariodante. She was joined by Sandrine Piau in Bramo aver mille vite. In the second half, she excelled in Rameau’s Pour rendre à mon hymen tout l’Olympe propice from Les Fêtes d’Hébé. 

Lea Desandre

Fine performances also came from Marc Mauillon (baritone) and Lisandro Abadie (bass-baritone), the former notable with Le doux silence de nos bois by Honoré d’Ambruis. Soprano Maud Gnidzoz stepped out from the choir for Handle’s O let the merry bells ring round. Of the instrumentalists, Sébastien Marq, recorder, Chalres Zebler, flute, David Simpson, cello, Claude Wassmer, bassoon, Béatrice Martin, harpsichord and organ, and Thomas Dunford, theorbo all deserve special mention.

And so the celebrations continued, well into the night. With a steady influx of new young musicians and an impressive (and English!) Associate Director, Les Arts Florissants’ future seems assured, as does their continued welcome at The Barbican, their principal London venue for many years.