Opera + Classical Music Reviews

A slightly foggy Christmas from Charpentier and Les Arts Florissants

19 December 2022

Some highs and lows of Charpentier’s Christmas music at the Barbican.


Barbican Centre

Barbican Centre (Photo: Max Colson)

Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s compositional output was prodigious on all fronts, and it’s no surprise that it includes a hefty amount of music for the Christmas season (including four settings of the oratorio In Nativitatem Domini Canticum, a meditation on the events of Christmas Eve), and there’s something rather charming about a man named ‘carpenter’ writing music about a family whose business this was.

Les Arts Florissants, eschewing performing the obvious Messe de Minuit pour Noël (Charpentier’s most well known Christmas work) opted to present three lesser-known pieces: Antiennes ‘O’ de l’Avent (settings of the seven Advent ‘O’ antiphons) interleaved with instrumental Noëls pour les instruments; Sur la Naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ Pastorale (a short scena at the manger for shepherds and the Angel); and one of the shorter versions of In Nativitatem…

Music of this period of French Baroque can be a bit of a challenging listen; extended melody driven arias hadn’t yet been fully developed, yet complex, textured polyphony had somewhat died out – with a result that there’s a lot of decorated recitative. Interest, then, comes from the suspensions in the slow passages, crisp counterpoint from rapidly moving ripieno passages, and as much ornamentation of the extended recited narrative as a lacy sleeve waved in an exaggerated Versailles obeisance.

“…there’s something rather charming about a man named ‘carpenter’ writing music about a family whose business this was”

In providing all of this, Sur la Naissance… was the most successful, and it was, arguably, the hit of the evening. Founder and long-time director of the ensemble, William Christie opted to deploy a minimum of both instrumental and vocal forces in a delightfully mannered (and acted out) presentation. Soprano Julie Roset and tenor Nicholas Scott as the shepherds Silvie and Tircis both have clear and agile voices that were perfect for the material: alternately skipping lightly over the narrative, adding casual-seeming ornamentation, or making full use of dynamic light and shade for more serious utterances, their brief duet moments were precisely melded. The four voices of the chorus were also well blended, and provided just enough heft to add contrast to the vocal material, and the instrumental accompaniment remained feather light, yet full of texture (the traditional two ‘halo’ recorders for the reported speech of the Angel were delightful, and the addition of two oboes and a tambourine to the jolly Menuet was captivating).

While the other two works were given well-considered accounts, the greater number of performers on stage didn’t really add anything. Seemingly, for the Noëls at least, historical evidence suggests Charpentier might have had a larger number of instruments than usual involved, and the performances from a 19 piece ensemble on Monday were crisp and varied enough in texture (often echoes between groups of wind players and string players), but they nonetheless remained a little earthbound, and one missed the energetic and flexible pop and crackle of a smaller group. The choral setting of the antiphons suffered even more from personnel overload. For sure, there was variety here in the tempi (Charpentier’s inescapable need for word painting giving us big homophonic statements for each of the ‘O’ sections, but more upbeat music for the ‘veni’ passages) and in the textures (the addition or subtraction of sopranos to create different atmosphere), and Christie’s clever playing with tempo and texture on ‘aperis’ and ‘claudis’ (open and close) in O Clavis David was enjoyable, but there was an unfocused feel to the choral passages that seemingly came from too many voices that were not quite synchronised.

This woolliness (appropriate, perhaps, for shepherds) was also evident in the choral sections of In Nativitatem…, and while the soloists were clear and edgy (the precise tones of soprano Emanuelle de Negri, tenor Bastien Rimondi and bass Lisandro Abadie made for a beguiling listen), the ensemble sections – particularly the quiet ones such as the opening ‘Chorus of the Just’ – all sounded a little foggy, the ornamentation there, but a little blurred.

buy Les Arts Florissants MP3s or CDs
Spotify Les Arts Florissants on Spotify

More on Les Arts Florissants
A slightly foggy Christmas from Charpentier and Les Arts Florissants
Les Arts Florissants / Christie @ Wigmore Hall, London