Les Arts Florissants: Charpentier at Christmas

Charpentier at Christmas
Les Arts Florissants, William Christie
The Barbican, 19 December 2022

Marc-Antoine Charpentier
Antiennes ‘O’ de l’Avent, H36–43 and Noëls pour les instruments, H531 and 534
Sur la Naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, H482
In nativitatem Domini Canticum, H416

photo: Mark Allan / Barbican

A delightful alternative to the endless Messiahs and carol events in the lead-up to Christmas came with the visit of Les Arts Florissant to The Barbican for their concert, Charpentier at Christmas. Despite the decades of work by William Christie and the regular visits of his Les Arts Florissant to The Barbican, the French baroque repertoire is still not as well known as it deserves to be. This was a wonderful chance to absorb the distinctive sound of French music, singers, and orchestral colours.

The pieces selected were composed in the 1680s and early 1690s, covering his time as composer to the Duchess of Guise. and subsequent work with the Jesuits in Parisian churches when his music was almost entirely religious in nature. The first half of the evening featured the Antiennes ‘O’ de l’Avent interspersed with seven of the ten Noëls sur les instruments, both composers around 1690-93. Although intended to be sung one by one on separate days during the days before Christmas, the eight Antiennes made a very effective sequence, particularly with the contrasted instrumental Noëls. The Antiennes have an impressive structure to them, the first three using three male voices and continuo, the fourth and fifth with four voices and four instrumental parts, the sixth with two solo violins, and the seventh returning to the opening texture.

Although Charpentier was not an organist, the style of the Noëls reminded me of the multitude of Noël variations written by Parisian organist composers of the day, the contrasting terraced sequence of aural textures reflecting the archetypical four-manual French Baroque organ. The very French sound of recorders combining with strings and oboes was a particular delight. For some reason, the audience was left in complete darkness for the first half of the concert, which is something of a nightmare for a reviewer, pen in hand.

The Pastorale Sur la Naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ was composed between 1683 and 1685 while Charpentier worked for the Duchess of Guise. The chamber scale of the piece reflected the type of music that he composed during his time with her household. It starts with a curious scene of a shepherdess and shepherd (soprano Julie Roset and tenor Nicholas Scott) commenting on the stable scene in Bethlehem just after the birth of Jesus. Unusually for such scenarios, there is a discussion about the tricky role of Joseph in the proceedings – “is Joseph not jealous?”. The shepherd reveals that an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream to dissuade him from divorcing Mary after she became pregnant. After an instrumental Menuet (which started William Christie’s role as a tambourine player) the pair invite more shepherds to join them in rejoicing. The subtle choreography and acting added to the rather domestic nature of the piece.

The In Nativitatem Domini Canticum (one of four) dates from 1690 and is one of Charpentier’s most Italianate works with influences from the oratorios of Carissimi. It was composed when he was maître de musique at St Louis in Paris around 1690 and was probably performed during a Christmas Day Mass. The story is told in three sections with an evangelist and an angel introducing a chorus of the faithful, the story of the birth, and the adoration of the shepherds. A combination of French and Italian musical styles and genres makes for a very attractive piece, superbly performed by Les Arts Florissants. Their interpretation of this summed up the whole evening, with outstanding delicacy of texture and colour, and beautifully controlled dynamics from William Christie.

The encore was part of another Charpentier Pastorale H.483, followed by a more secluded celebration of William Christies birthday.

photo: Les Arts Florissants