Whilst it was a slimmed-down Kings Consort who appeared at the Wigmore Hall for this French Baroque programme, there was no question of the audience being short-changed on sheer quality and class.
Just five performers occupied the stage all evening: soprano Carolyn Sampson, mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland, Susanne Heinrich on bass viol, Lynda Sayce on theorbo, and Robert King on chamber organ. Between them, they served up a dazzling display of brilliance and elegant music-making, with the two singers on outstanding form.
The majority of the programme was given over to the sacred vocal music of Franois Couperin, starting with two contrasting works from the earlier part of his career. The Magnificat setting, with its alternating solo and duet sections, showed us from the outset how ideally matched Sampson and Kielland were, and this feeling was reinforced by the more spectacular Motet pour le jour de Pques, which gave us dazzling runs and virtuosity where the Magnificat had been the pensive utterings of the Virgin Mary.
Although all the vocal music tonight is commonly performed by two equal high voices, having the slightly richer, fuller voice of Kielland on the lower part gave Sampsons ringing soprano solid support, and in the intertwinings of the two voices it was nigh impossible to distinguish them.
The two Couperin items in the first half were separated by three instrumental works, spearheaded by the viol. Unfortunately, here came the only slight wrinkle in an otherwise faultless performance from the instrumental team, as I felt that Heinrichs solo Prlude by Sainte-Colombe le fils didnt have enough forward movement, enough dance. However, things were back to normal with Marin Maraiss Tombeau for Sainte-Colombe le pre (Maraiss teacher) suitably sombre and light at the same time, and which I enjoyed hearing performed with an organ rather than a harpsichord and sprightly Chaconne, which the group used as a prelude to Couperins Easter motet.
After the interval came the high-point of the programme: Couperins Trois Leons de Tnbres, devotional music written for the Tenebrae service on Maundy Thursday in Holy Week. Sampson and Kielland took the first and second Leon, respectively, before reuniting for the two-voice third. While this is delicate music, I find that a forthright and robust approach pays a greater dividend than treating it with kid gloves, and so it proved here.
Kiellands warm, full, immediate sound, which moved in an instant from achingly quiet and tender to grippingly dramatic was the perfect foil for the silken threads spun by Sampson not just smooth and effortless, but seductive, even (who could resist the utterly beguiling opening phrase of the first Leon, Incipit lamentatio Jeremiae prophetae?). And when the two voices combined, what bliss: the grief of their O vos omnes (All ye who pass by) pierced us through as was the Virgin Mary, into whose mouth those words were later transposed.
I was delighted to learn that this same team will be recording the Leons I can scarcely imagine how their Wigmore performance could be bettered and Ill certainly be snapping up the CD as soon as it comes out.
Further details can be found at wigmore-hall.org