Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years. Even more significantly, this perfection was mixed with joy and humour. This was an hommage to Rameau, whose 250th anniversary we celebrate, But for us in the audience, it was also an hommage to William Christie, who founded Les Arts Florissants in 1979. Christie and the generations of artists he has inspired blend new scholarly research with musical intelligence.
In his lifetime, Rameau was something of a radical. Christie and modern baroque specialists present Rameau as vibrant as it might have been when the music was still fresh. Deus noster refugium (1713) (God is our refuge) begins in relatively conventional mode, suitable for decorous church performance. Then a wilder. almost dance-like mood takes over, ushered in by "footsteps"in the vocal line, where each syllable is deliberately defined. The voices sing with firm conviction, while the forces around them are in tumult. With a little imagination, we can hear, as Lindsay Kemp describes in his programme notes, "'mountains' cast into the sea (bursts of tremolos and rushing scales in the strings, stoically resisted by firmly regular crotchets in the three solo voices; swelling waters (smooth but restless choral writing over forward-driving strings); and finally streams that 'filled the city of God with joy' a gigue-like aria for soprano with solo violin".
Quam dilecta tabernacula (1713-15?) (How lovely is thy dwelling place) allows Rameau to write elaboate fugal patterns. Rameau, the master of technical form, also manages to evoke the beauty of the outdoors. The piece begins with very high soprano, accompanied by delicate winds : pastoral, sensual and mysteriously unearthly. The choruses introduce a livelier mood, which might suggest fecundity and vigorous growth. The soprano solo is balanced by a tenor solo, then later by baritone. Elegant design, reminiscent of baroque gardens, laid out in tight formation. When the soloists sing in ensemble, and later with full chorus, the voices entwine gracefully.
The version of In convertendo Dominus (Psalm 126, When the Lord turned again the Captivity of Zion) only now exists in a revision made for Holy Week in 1751. The piece begins with a wonderful part for very high tenor, presaging the passion later French opera would have for the voice type. Do we owe Enée and Robert le Diable to Rameau? Reinoud Van Mechelen's voice rang nicely, joined by the other five soloists in merry, lilting chorus that suggests laughter. The bass Cyril Costanzo's art was enhanced by whip-like flourishes of brass and wind. Even lovelier, the well decorated soprano passages, which lead into a beautiful blending of solo voices and orchestra. A pause: and then the exquisite chorus. "They that go out weeping....shall come back in exultation, carrying their sheaves with them. Christie balances the voices so finely that one really hears "sheaves", united and golden.
If these Grand Motets weren't enough, Christie continued with so many encores that the BBC schedule was thrown off kilter, and only one can be heard on rebroadcast. Haha! I thought, admiring Christie's sense of humour and bravado. The photo above shows Christie having fun in fancy dress. Since I'd come for the music (and for Les Arts Flo) I was glad I could stay, and not worry about mundane things like missing the last bus. "Hahahahahaha " went the chorus in the excerpt from Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville's In exitu Israel (1753) on exactly the same subject. A brilliant choice! Just as in Rameaus In convertendo Dominus, the Hebrews are laughing because they've been freed. Rameau's laughter is more subtle, Mondonville's more crude, "crowd pleasing" to the point of being coarse. Christie is making a point. Mondonville was more fashionable at the time, but as we know now, Rameau has had the last laugh.
Christie continued with an extract from Rameau's Castor et Pollux which was used with words of Kyrie Eléison for Rameau's funeral Mass. The opera and its successors meant a lot to the composer, and to Christie, who conducted Hippolyte et Aricie at Glyndebourne last year (read my review HERE). Christie is no fool. Respect his choices. He knows baroque style better than most, and chose as director Jonathan Kent, with whom he created the magnificent Glyndebourne Purcell The Fairy Queen. "If it's good enough for Bill Christie", my companion said, "It's good enough for me". At the interval at Glyndebourne we bumped into Christie himself, and told him. He beamed with delight, his eyes twinkling. "That's what I like", he grinned.
Christie and Les Arts Florissantes ended with a excerpt from Les Indes Galantes, their greatest hit, which revolutionized public perceptions of the genre.The baroque era was audacious, given to extravagant, crazy extremes. People embraced the new world outside Europe, and delighted in exotic fantasy. Po-faced literalism is an aberration of late 20th century culture, dominated by TV. To really appreciate baroque style, it helps to understand the period. "You have to steep yourself in historical, performance practice", says Christie. "it has to become completely natural and spontaneous. If the public starts to become aware of the archaeological aspects, then we've failed. I think one of the reasons we've had success in Les Arts Florissants is because we've become completely instinctive". This fabulous Prom unleashed the joy, energy and wit in the style. Christie makes Rameau, and the spirit of his age, come alive.