Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Ensemble Pierre Robert/Desenclos @ St John’s, Smith Square, London

19 May 2008

Ensemble Pierre Robert

Ensemble Pierre Robert

The Lufthansa Festival’s overarching, and timelessly pertinent theme, The Triumph of Peace, was further explored with a concert entitled Peace Sacred, Peace Profane given by Ensemble Pierre Robert. With a stroke of imagination, this impressive French band, under Frédric Desenclos’ direction, offered two Grand Sicle works that were composed in celebration of peace treaties: Sébastien de Brossard’s Canticum eucharistum pro pace and Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Idylle sur la Paix.

Though lesser known of the two musicians, Brossard was nonetheless an important figure under Louix XIV’s reign, as maitre de chapelle at Strasbourg Cathedral. His reputation, so the generous programme notes inform us, is largely based on theoretical work, but he was commissioned to write this “song of thanksgiving” in 1697, the year of the Treaty of Ryswick.

After a standard tripartite overture, the piece is structured by a patchwork of 72 different biblical verses some mere statements that dissolve into terse airs and swathes of recitative, and punctuated by frequent tempo changes. It would not be unfair to suggest that the whole adds up to less than the sum of its parts, but the details are quite exquisite, and the light orchestration (a modest outfit of strings, supplemented only by baroque flutes and a bassoon) warmed well to the capacious acoustics of St John’s, Smith Square.

Lully’s divertissement Idylle sur la Paix was completed the year following the Truce of Ratisbon, in 1685. There are obvious parallels with Brossard’s piece, and though a secular work, Jean Racine’s accompanying text, full of praises for the conquering hero, does its best to deify the Sun King. Musically, however, it’s the more engaging of the two: string lines sing with an almost human character, mirroring some extravagant chorus sections, and there is delightful little menuet between flutes and bassoon that reoccurs throughout the piece.

It sounds distinctively Lullyesque and each phrase is decorated with dizzying trills and formal ornaments that were popular in French music of the time, but whilst such mannerisms can become tiring when over-indulged, Desenclos ensured the delivery remained neat and well-focussed. The concert concluded with the Chaconne pour Madame la Princesse de Conti, a short ballet that Lully tacked onto the end of Idylle in a display of blatant sycophantism but winning charm.

In each piece the vocals are shared quite evenly between either four or five soloists, and the line-up was appropriately balanced. As the two soprano voices, Camille Poul and Anne Magout, were particularly sweet-toned, and the hautre-contre tenor Michael Feyfar demonstrated a considerable agility. Importantly, and especially so for these oratorio-style works, the words were delivered with clarity and expression. Whilst this may not have been the most stylish of performances, or indeed programmes, there can be no doubting its quality.

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Ensemble Pierre Robert/Desenclos @ St John’s, Smith Square, London