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. Continue reading

Monteverdi: Selva morale e spirituale

Monteverdi: Selva morale e spirituale
Les Arts Florissants, William Christie
Barbican, 9 December 2017

Monteverdi’s 8th book of madrigals, the Selva morale e spirituale (Moral and Spiritual Forest”), was published in 1641 when Monteverdi was in his 70s. It seems to have been intended as a culmination of his musical career at St Marks Venice, and contains a vast array of compositional styles, as reflected in this Barbican concert by the eight singers and eight instrumentalists of Les Arts Florissants. They opened with one of the most dramatic pieces from the collection, the extended seven-voice Gloria, the clear articulation of the singers allowing the flourishes of the musical lines to shine. Here, as in many of the other pieces, the two violinists made significant contributions. Continue reading

Festival d’Ambronay

Festival d’Ambronay
28 September to 1 October 2017

Since 1980, when it was founded, the Ambronay Festival has been a key part of the early music world. In recent years, the activities of the Ambronay Cultural Encounter Centre (based in the former Abbey buildings adjoining the magnificent Romanesque Abbey church) have expanded, and now includes impressive provision for young musicians. For the past couple of years, Ambronay has been part of the European Union supported eeemerging project (Emerging European Ensembles), an EU-wide cooperation project dedicated to the selection, training and promotion of young early music ensembles. The last of the four long weekends of the annual Ambronay Festival (which runs annually from mid-September to early October) is devoted to these eeemerging ensembles, but several of them also performed in the previous three weekends of the Festival. The theme for this year’s Festival was ‘Vibrations: Souffle’, roughly translating as Vibrations: Breathing, part of a triptych of festivals under the same Vibrations theme.

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I attended the penultimate weekend of the Festival, from Thursday 28 September to Sunday 1 October 2017. The first two day’s concerts took place in Lyon, about 60km south-west of Ambronay.
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Festival de Saintes

Festival de Saintes
Abbaye aux Dames: la cité musicale, Saintes
14-22 July 2017

The Abbaye aux Dames was founded in 1047 by the Count of Anjou as a Benedictine abbey for women, usually of aristocratic origin. Around 1120, the Abbey church was altered and the spectacularly carved west end facade and belIMG_20170717_094834230.jpgl tower were added. Internally, the Romanesque triple-aisled basilica was altered, rather inelegantly, by inserting two enormous domed cupolas into the original external walls, resulting in a bit of an architectural mess. After two major fires in the 17th century (which destroyed the cupolas), the church was restored, and impressive new convent buildings were added, with cells for 45 nuns. During the Revolution, the Abbey first became a prison (1792), and then a barracks (1808). In the 1920s, the Abbey complex was purchased by the town of Saintes. In the 1970s, restoration of the monastic IMG_20170716_191740421.jpgbuildings (abandoned since the war) was started and, in 1972, an annual Festival of Ancient Music was created, later becoming the Festival de Saintes. In 1988 the Abbey was launched as a cultural centre by President François Mitterrand, and in 2013 it became la cité musicale, housing a Conservatoire of Music and a range of year-round musical activities, including many for young people. The former nun’s cells now sleep visitors and guests of the Festival.
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Messiah

Messiah
Les Arts Florissants, William Christie
Barbican, 19 December 2016

wp_20161222_18_10_35_pro-2Over the years, William Christie has done much to introduce French baroque music to British ears, and has opened our ears to Purcell. But I had not heard his take on Messiah live before. It was bound to be rather different from the usual variety of British interpretations, and it was. We are increasingly used to lightly scored performances with moderately sized choirs, in contrast to the cast of thousands of yesteryear, but this very Gallic interpretation added a layer of delicacy and dance-like joie de vivre to Handel’s music, all done in the best possible Bon Goût. Les Arts Florissants fielded a choir of 24 (quite large, by some standards today, and in Handel’s time) and an orchestra with 6, 6, 4, 4, 2 strings, together with five soloists. Both instrumentalists and the chorus were encouraged to keep the volume down, usually by a finger on the Christie lips. This seems to be in line with Handel’s intentions, as indicated by his scoring and, for example, his very limited use of the trumpets. When things did let rip, there was still a sense of restraint amongst the power. Continue reading

BBC Prom 63: Bach B minor Mass

BBC Prom 63: Bach B minor Mass
Les Arts Florissants, William Christie
Royal Albert Hall, 1 September 2016

However many times I hear Bach’s B minor Mass, I never stopped being amazed at its compositional history. Almost certainly never heard during his lifetime, and with many of the sections lifted from earlier compositions, it was cobbled together over many years, the first part with the aim of securing a royal appointment in the Saxony Court. Despite all that it is one of the most, and arguably, the most extraordinary piece of music ever composed.   So it was no surprise that more than 5,00o people wanted to hear its performance at the BBC Proms in the Albert Hall.

And therein lay the problem. How to perform a work, intended to be performed in an (albeit sizeable) church by the normal Baroque orchestral and choral forces, in a vast auditorium designed (if indeed it was designed for anything) for enormous forces. Nowadays most period instrument groups makes few concessions to the space and acoustics, and play the music in the way they normally do. This is what William Christie did, with a 24-strong choir and a typical Bach orchestra. This will not produce a sound to fill the hall. But it will produce a sound that Bach might recognise. And for me, that is the key thing. Prommers are, by and large, pretty intelligent people, so should be used to letting their ears adjust to the relatively subdued volume. Continue reading