Classical Music

Les Arts Florissants/Christie review – Christmas, 17th-century Paris-style | Classical music


Advent and Christmas in late 17th-century Paris was the subject of this Les Arts Florissants concert, conducted by William Christie and focusing on music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Given on Christie’s 78th birthday, it was an evening of contrasts in many ways. The first half interwove Charpentier’s austere Antiennes O de L’Avent with a sequence of instrumental Noëls, basically arrangements of popular carols of the day. After the interval came more dramatic – if more uneven – works, depicting the Adoration of the Shepherds: the pastorale Sur la Naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ; and the short oratorio In Nativitatem Domini Canticum.

The first half was astonishingly beautiful. The Antiennes, heralding the coming of Christ in music of great devotional fervour, were exquisitely sung, with everything wonderfully controlled and shaded, and a beautiful evenness of line from tenors and basses. The fourth antiphon O Clavis David, in which Charpentier adds women’s voices into the mix for the first time and opens up the continuo accompaniment to embrace the strings, suggesting a new world of infinite possibilities, had a breathtaking immediacy. The Noëls, meanwhile, played with wonderful sensuousness of tone and rhythmic precision, sounded poised and graceful. It was hard to imagine the sequence better done.

Hard to imagine the sequence better done… Les Arts Florissants perform Charpentier Antiennes ‘O’ de l’Avent Noëls pour les instruments. Photograph: Mark Allan

The second half brought a change of mood. Sur la Naissance, in which the shepherd and shepherdess Tircis and Sylvie (Nicholas Scott and Julie Roset, both excellent) comment on the nativity – at one point wryly discussing Joseph’s age – before leading their fellows in adoration, is engaging if slight. It was done, un-conducted, as a chamber piece, in which Christie actually played the tambourine, but the deft ensemble work couldn’t quite disguise the piece’s unevenness of tone. In Nativitatem Domini Canticum is a more sober examination of the same narrative, and there is also something of the Antiennes’ reflectiveness in a breathtaking passage in which theshepherds express their wonder on first seeing the Christ child. Again, it was immaculately done, the playing sensuous and detailed, the singing matchless in its quiet intensity.



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