Mark Allan, photo

Monday, December 19, 2022

Barbican Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Curtis Rogers

If Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) is known for two things, then almost certainly it is either his Te Deum or, more appropriate for the festive season, the Messe de Minuit. For Les Arts Florissants’s concert, however – on the occasion of founder, William Christie’s seventy-eighth-birthday – the substantial repertoire of the composer’s other sacred music was drawn upon to create this imaginative sequence of pieces for the Advent and Christmas season.

The first part featured the ‘O’ Antiphons, setting the Church’s liturgical texts for each of the seven days in Advent immediately before Christmas, which acclaim the coming of Christ in various theological allegories taken from the Old Testament, hence the vocative call of their openings. (These seven ideas, incidentally, correspond to those in each of the verses of the popular Advent hymn ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’.) They were preceded by a plangent account of the Eucharistic hymn ‘O salutaris hostia’, earnestly praying for the gates of Heaven to open.

The choir placed due emphasis on the suspensions and small melismas opening each subsequent antiphon – akin to the famous flourishes on the initial Hebrew letters of so many Tenebrae settings for the equivalent days leading up to Easter (not least Charpentier’s own settings of these) – and given a yearning urgency, expecting the coming of Christ. Those initial acclamations tended to give way to the jauntier alacrity of the second part of each movement, imploring the incarnate God to come and fulfil the promises of the Old Testament invoked. ‘O clavis David’ was notably more sustained and serious as it meditated upon those who “sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” prior to God’s coming salvation (the auditorium was atmospherically plunged into darkness, except for the stage, during the whole of this first part). ‘O Adonai’ – recalling the giving of the law to Moses – was tender and reflective, providing contrast with the euphony of those antiphons looking forwards to grace and salvation, though the final ‘O Emmanuel’ brought back minor-key gravity.

Interspersed among the antiphons were seven Noëls, instrumental elaborations of favourite French carols of the period (somewhat like Bach’s organ chorale preludes on Lutheran hymns, but generally comprising a lighter folk style, reflecting the pastoral environment of the shepherds, the first witnesses of the infant Jesus – as also evoked in various other instrumental pieces such as the ‘Pastoral Symphony’ of Handel’s Messiah or Corelli’s ‘Christmas’ Concerto). Here the instrumentalists of Les Arts Florissants were variously radiant and playful, the pastoral mood caught not only by the recorders but also the slightly reedy timbre of the violas, imparting a suitably rustic earthiness.

Such a pastoral setting continued in the opening of the concert’s second part, which dealt with the actual events of the Christmas story. Sur la Naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ is effectively a cantata involving two shepherds and small chorus. Unlike the numerous secular cantatas of the French and Italian Baroque which see shepherds bickering and bemoaning the torments of romantic love, here Silvie and Tircis harmoniously recount, in their guileless way, the marvel that they have just witnessed – charmingly hailed by the garrulous pairs of violins and recorders, in front of the continuo group, anticipating Julie Roset and Nicholas Scott’s sparkling dialogue and rapturous duets. Scott intoned the words of the angel to Joseph with restrained dignity, before a lively Minuet – embellished with Christie’s contributions on the tambourine, as he otherwise took no part in the performance – called in a choral quartet of onlookers coming to see what the excitement is about.

In navitatem Domini Canticum is a rather more serious composition, like an oratorio of Charpentier’s teacher in Rome, Giacomo Carissimi, relating in Latin and a more theologically exacting text, the birth of Christ and the adoration of the shepherds. The strings’ still and mysterious Prelude – with its wan, chromatic harmonies – brought back the sense of foreboding, almost distressed waiting from the antiphons, that was then taken up by Bastien Rimondi in the steady focus of his lamenting recitative ‘Usquequo avertis faciem’, before the choir’s energetic declarations of “veni” (“come”) expressed a startling turning point. Lisandro Abadie gave out authoritatively and dispassionately the words of consolation in the following accompanied recitative (more an arioso, the text similar in content to those of ‘Comfort ye’ which opens Messiah). The instruments evoked the pregnant stillness of night, and a bell tolled twelve, leading to the chorus of shepherds joyfully hailing the appearance of a great light, and Scott’s clarion-like announcement as the Angel confirmed the good news. Christie shaped the lucid blocks of harmony in the shepherds’ unaccompanied chorus of awe ‘O infans, o Deus’ as if it were a sacred madrigal, modulating to tender devotion and sober celebration in ‘Exultemus, jubilemus’ as they laud the eternal peace that the Saviour brings.

Although that is the ultimate message of this delightful little work, this performance was one of cogent, refined drama and tension, reminding that sacred and secular, and theatre and political reality, were intertwined in the France of Louis XIV.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier

Antiennes ‘O’ de l’Avent, H36-43

interspersed with Noëls pour les instruments, H531 and 534

Sur la Naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, Pastorale, H482

In navitatem Domini Canticum, H416

Emmanuelle de Negri & Julie Roset (sopranos), Nicholas Scott (haute contre), Bastien Rimondi (tenor) & Lisandro Abadie (bass-baritone)

Les Arts Florissants

William Christie

Many Happy Returns to William Christie, 78 today.