Grand office des morts
Messe pour plusieurs instruments au lieu des orgues
Orlanda Velez Isidro & Olga Pitarch (sopranos)
Paul Agnew & Jeffrey Thomson (high tenors)
Topi Lehtipuu & Marc Mauillon (tenors)
João Fernandes & Bertrand Bontoux (basses)
Choir and Orchestra of Les Arts Florissants
Reviewed by: William Yeoman
Reviewed: 9 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
This year sees the tercentenary of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s death, and London has already been graced with many performances of the French master’s works. Coincidentally, Les Arts Florissants are celebrating its jubilee this year; so it is only fitting that, as one of the final performances at this year’s Proms, we should have some of Charpentier’s most sublime music performed by such illustrious exponents of French Baroque music.
The ‘Grand office des morts’ performed here was a speculative configuration for such a service, comprising the Messe pour les trépassés H2, the Dies irae H12, the Motet pour le trépassés: Plainte des âmes du Purgatoire H311 and the De profundis H156. Two such likely occasions were the funerals of the Duke of Guise and Marguerite de Lorrain, both relatives of Charpentier’s patron at the time, Mademoiselle de Guise.
Tutti, ensemble and solo sections were uniformly excellent, with Charpentier’s characteristic contrasting between string and wind sections being made much of in the intermediary ‘symphonies’ and his use of Air de Cour (secular, ‘courtly’ song) techniques (like the ubiquitous port de voix – roughly equivalent to an appoggiatura or anticipazione della syllaba – or the free melismatic decoration of significant words) highlighted with great taste and skill by the vocalists. High-tenor Paul Agnew perhaps got a little carried away with a vocal delivery that was more suited to the opera house; but it must be remembered that Charpentier was in the habit of using professional singers from the theatre as soloists in his sacred music, particularly for performances of his justly-celebrated Leçons de Ténèbres.The Messe pour plusieurs instruments au lieu des orgues (Mass for many instruments in lieu of an organ) came about through the intercession of Mademoiselle de Guise: a commission for a new organ by the Spanish monks who inhabited a nearby monastery fell through and Charpentier was called upon to write orchestral pieces for masses sung during the week-long festivities that had already been planned to celebrate the expected organ.
This performance consisted of a male choir chanting the ‘Kyrie’, ‘Gloria’ and ‘Sanctus’ off-stage while the orchestra provided the ‘organ’ commentary between verses. The contrast between austere chant and multi-coloured orchestral ‘responses’ was further highlighted by Charpentier’s imitation of organ registration, realised to perfection by Christie’s band – a recorder consort, oboes, a serpent and other instrumental exotica enhanced the strings and fleshed out the score with vivid timbres and myriad rhythmic subtleties.
The grand Te Deum, still Charpentier’s best-known work, was preceded by an amazing March for solo timpani written by Jacques Danican Philidor (1657-1708) and performed with startling virtuosity by Marie-Ange Petit; a wonderful moment ensued when, having finished the March, she immediately began to hammer out the familiar opening rhythm of the Prélude instrumental before being joined by the orchestra. The rest of the performance was equally compelling, with fine young tenor Topi Lehtipuu particularly affecting in the opening of the ‘Te per orbem’ and sopranos Orlanda Velez Isidro and Olga Pitarch models of reflective purity in the ‘Fiat misericordia’. The trilling trumpets capping the work were a knockout.
We were treated to a heavenly encore, the first movement of André Campra’s Requiem – a wonderful way to end a wonderful concert.