Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble/Minkowski – Purcell … Handel … Haydn [Ode for St Cecilia’s Day … St Cecilia Mass]

Hail! Bright Cecilia – Ode for St Cecilia’s Day
Ode for St Cecilia’s Day
Missa Cellensis in honorem Beatissimae Virginis Mariae – Kyrie & Gloria

Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Nathalie Stutzman (contralto)
David Bates (countertenor)
Anders J. Dahlin & Richard Croft (tenors)
Neil Baker (bass-baritone)
Luca Tittoto (bass)

Choeur des Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble

Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble
Marc Minkowski

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 18 January, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Such was the epic length of this concert marking the various anniversaries this year of Purcell, Handel and Haydn that there was a grave danger of the music outstaying its welcome. But so outstanding were the performances by Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble under its charismatic founder Marc Minkowski that the evening (all three-and-a-half hours of it!) was nothing short of enthralling.

Marc Minkowski. Photograph: Lillian Birnbaum/DGEach of the concert’s three parts consisted of a substantial choral work by one of the featured composers in honour of St Cecilia. The chronological nature of the programme ensured a fascinating musical journey, beginning with the grandest of all Purcell’s celebratory odes, “Hail! Bright Cecilia”, from 1692.

A trove of gems, each of the varied numbers offers something special, vividly brought out in this sensitive and brilliant performance. The angelically floating ‘With that sublime celestial lay’ was seductively sung by creamy-voiced Lucy Crowe; treble recorders duetted delightfully in ‘Hark, each tree its silence breaks’; and tenor Anders J. Dahlin displayed Herculean stridency in ‘The fife and all the harmony of war’, all the more impressive as it immediately followed a tender duet with Richard Croft, ‘In vain the am’rous flute’ – the two perfectly synchronised voices making music of truly mesmeric beauty.

Though historically-conscious, the French players (on period-instruments) weren’t reticently bound by authenticity: from the robust opening chords of Purcell’s introductory ‘Symphony’, satisfyingly broad bow strokes and forthright wind sonorities contributed to a full, vibrant sound that characterised the whole concert.

Fifty-odd years after Purcell, Handel set Dryden’s original “Ode for St Cecilia’s Day” (Purcell’s text was a bastardisation by one Nicholas Brady). The poem, lauded by no less than Dr Johnson, clearly inspired Handel; and the music, among Handel’s very greatest, in turn inspired superb performances from Minkowski and Company. Nils Wieboldt’s soulful rendering of the solo cello introduction and obbligato accompaniment to ‘What passion cannot Music raise and quell!’ was utterly sublime; Thibaud Robinne’s exemplary playing of the natural-trumpet thrilled in ‘The trumpet’s loud clangour’, heroically sung by Richard Croft; and Lucy Crowe held the audience spellbound in the serene ‘The soft complaining flute’.

Haydn’s “Missa Cellensis” dates from 1766, less than thirty years after Handel’s ode; yet the musical style is a world apart. Galant charm, sophisticated orchestral writing and festive C major sparkle come together in Haydn’s grandest mass setting, which provided a chance for the full-bodied choir to shine – especially in the fast and furious fugues. Having waved just his hands for the Baroque works, the jovially eccentric Minkowski conducted the Haydn with what looked like a magician’s wand (Tommy Cooper rather than Harry Potter). I’ll resist the temptation to say that the results were “magic”, although you won’t hear a more engaging rendition of this work.

On paper this concert looked as though it was to have been even longer: “Missa Cellensis” is much longer than any of Haydn’s other masses. However, in what appeared to be a late decision, only the ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Gloria’ were performed – Minkowski explaining that as the first two movements have recently been shown to pre-date the rest, the ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Gloria’ alone “probably” constitute the piece’s original version. No one complained; but so compelling and joyous was the performance that there were shouts of approval when we were offered the “best” bits of the rest (the second half of the ‘Credo’, beginning with a poignant minor-key ‘Et incarnatus’ tenor solo) as an entrancing encore.

  • Purcell and Haydn pieces broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 21 January at 7 p.m.; Haydn Mass on Saturday 24 January at 7.45 p.m.
  • Barbican

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