Hymne à la Vierge on Saturday evening was the final concert of music of the French Baroque in the A Weekend of Excessively Good Taste series at Kings Place, and featured music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and his contemporaries. The performers (a custom-built eight-voice choir, and a handful of instrumentalists from The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, led by Rachel Podger), under the sure direction of Eamonn Dougan, were clearly no strangers to the repertoire, and delivered an excellent performance that spared no nuance of the place and period, from the precise ornamentation to the French pronunciation of the Latin.
Charpentier never held a court position, although he received considerable patronage from Marie de Lorraine, Duchess of Guise, and it was for her chapel that the Marian music in the concert was performed, including his settings of the four Marian antiphons from ‘Antiennes à la Vierge’: ‘Ave Regina Caelorum’, ‘Regina Caeil’, ‘Alma Redemptoris Mater’ and ‘Salve Regina’, along with two of his nine settings of the ‘Litanies à la Vierge’, a short setting of the Vespers antiphon ‘Pulchra es’, and the lengthy motet for all Marian fests, ‘Pro omnibus Festis’.
The choir and instruments together produced a gloriously full sound – especially during the full verses of the Litanies or the motet – and all the usual tropes of the period were performed with obvious enjoyment: the build up of two-voice suspensions through imitation (a particularly splendid example occurred in the ‘illud Ave’ at the end of ‘Alma Redemptoris’), the two-melody-instrument tunes in thirds, the elegant feminine endings, and the gracefully mannered tremblements-appuyés trills – more enjoyable still when occurring in the inner voices.
As well as producing a well blended sound as an ensemble, each of the voices shone in the solos, pairs and trios that Charpentier uses to add contrast to the music, and to point up the words (humans versus angels, for example, in the motet). The final set of Litanies demonstrated this admirably – its sections alternating between the male and female voices, often introduced by a solo, to be joined by the others. It was a close-run competition, but perhaps the male voices just had the edge on perfection – Greg Skidmore’s energetic basse-taille blending perfectly with Thomas Herford’s precise taille and Hugo Hymas’s clarion-like haute-contre.
The choral items were interspersed with instrumental pieces by Charpentier’s contemporaries, the first of which was François Couperin’s Trio Sonata ‘La Steinquerque – written in celebration of the French victory at the battle of Steenkirk – whose energetic melody lines were delivered with appropriately stylish gusto by Rachel Podger and Kati Debretzeni. Jonathan Manson performed two contrasting pieces for viola da gamba with assured brilliance: Monsieur de Saint-Colombe’s mournful ‘Les Pleurs’, and Marin Marais’s ‘Allemande (La Magnifique)’ from his seventh suite, the lively energy of which demonstrated to the full the capabilities of a string instrument with more strings than four!
Perhaps the least exciting of the instrumental interludes was the David Miller’s performance of Robert de Visée’s ‘Prelude’ and the same composer’s realisation of Couperin’s ‘Les Sylvains’. Theorbo playing seems to fall into two categories: assertive and whispering, and Miller opted for the latter: the performance was absolutely accomplished, but the solid sonorities (particularly on the bass bourdon strings) that come from a more assertive performance were missing.