Mostly Mozart – Mozart in Paris

Castor et Pollux [extracts]
In exitu Israel
La sortie d’Egypte
Symphony No.31 in D, K297 (Paris)

Claire Debono (soprano)
Karine Deshayes (mezzo-soprano)
Paul Agnew (tenor)
André Morsch (baritone)
Alain Buet (bass)

Les Arts Florissants Orchestra and Chorus
William Christie

Reviewed by: Erwin Hösi

Reviewed: 9 June, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This, the second concert of this year’s Barbican Centre “Mostly Mozart” festival, was the first in a little series of four highlighting the musical landscape Mozart may have encountered on his journeys. (The remaining three will take audiences on musical journeys to London, Salzburg and Italy, respectively.)

William Christie conducted the evening that was dedicated to the boy-prodigy’s visits to Paris. Mozart first visited France aged eight, and, as Graham Sadler’s very informative and spirited programme note pointed out, did not see a performance of Rameau’s “Castor et Pollux”, which was being re-staged at the time of his visit.

Still, a suite from the work gave Christie ample opportunity to charm with his and his ensemble’s well-known expertise in this repertoire, a brand-mark freshness and energy and some impressive high-tempo staccatos from the bassoons. This was followed up by a chorus performed by the 30-strong choir at its usual dynamicand transparent best. Ensuing were several fine numbers with some nice solo work from the flutes and oboes and a phenomenal finale that added a ‘wow’ to the already pleasant overall impression.

Mondonville is one of Christie’s specialities, which means that with this very grand motet, the captivating tone of the opening piece is magnified considerably. Including harmonised plainchant on a tonus peregrinus and some stunning instances of word-painting, this psalm setting, ranging from baroque bombast to the most gentle lyricism, raised the question as to whether Mozart’s Paris Symphony, to be performed later in the programme, could add anything. A very elegant vocal performance by Paul Agnew was contrasted with André Morsch’s thundering priest.

It came as a bit of a surprise to hear how well the idiom of Les Arts Florissants goes with symphonic Mozart. This was all light, wit and splendour. The audience were not granted a second to be distracted and the baited silence in the slow movement was remarkable. With Christie making the orchestra give everything it could in attention to detail as well as in liveliness, the question raised above was easily answered: yes, this was even more rewarding.

Henri-Joseph Rigel was the most obscure of the composers represented. Born in Germany, Rigel settled in Paris in 1767 to become one of the very few composers to write oratorios at that time and in that place. His first work in the genre, “La sortie d’Egypte”, thematically matches Mondonville’s psalm setting but represents the musical style of the second half of that century while containing a number of beautiful (though not overwhelmingly so) vocal solos.

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