Although there were some charming musical highlights to La Nuova Musica’s A French Affair on Thursday evening, the concert seemed to suffer from a lack of planning. The programme content did not always match up with what was performed (the printed text promised the whole of Purcell’s Arise my muse and we were given only three movements – that included the lavish incorporation of trumpets, which were then never heard again), the constant hiatuses occasioned by changing personnel on stage were distracting, and it was left to their director, David Bates to explain, in his off-the-cuff interjections, the connection between the English and French musical items from the late 17th century.
The evening featured the tenor Nick Pritchard and the countertenor Christopher Lowrey, whose performance of John Blow’s An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell was of star quality. Both of them, notwithstanding their early-music specialism, have a fruity tone to their voices that really suits the mannered music of this period, in this work, adding a richness that enhanced the embellishments of the music that Blow requires, as well as contrasting perfectly with the effortlessly ‘straight’ tone of the two recorders played by Sarah Humphreys and Rebecca Austen-Brown.
The pair also performed Cassandra Miller’s Sleepsinging, the programme’s only contemporary work. Written for Pritchard and Lowrey, it draws inspiration from Purcell’s music and makes use of ‘hypnotic repetition’ from the singers in a setting of words by Thomas Betterton. Repetitive the piece certainly is, the yawning descending portamenti in all the accompanying strings making a very obvious point, but its hypnotic quality was more elusive, leaving one feeling that this was more of a Fantasia on a Ground(hog day).
The comings and goings onstage resulted in a concert of interestingly varied textures: Lully’s simple Dixit Dominus for three female voices and continuo gave way to Pelham Humphrey’s nicely paced Like as the hart whose accompaniment of strings and continuo underscored a gradual accumulation of voices into a quartet. Rameau’s Laboravi clamans was performed as a vocal quintet with continuo. Other works required the deployment of all of La Nuova Musica’s nine voices: Charpentier’s narrative of Peter’s denial, Le reniement de St Pierre, involved solo characters in the drama (the countertenor Alexander Chance, unusually cast as Christus) as well as full chorus; Purcell’s My beloved spake elegantly contrasted the textures of solo quartet, chorus and instruments; the use of the full ensemble brought an opulence to the exquisite suspensions of Rameau’s Tendre amour.
Bates directed with a slightly nervous energy, hopping up and down from the organ stool to ensure each passage was as he wanted it, and this paid off in the interpretations, as dynamic and expression were generally well observed to give a good ‘period feel’ to the music (Lowrey’s repeated ‘jarring’ in the Blow, for example, the busyness of ‘et dispergentur oves gregis’ in the Charpentier, or the upper-note ornamentations throughout, were particularly effective), The singers’ use of historically informed pronunciation for the French items also added an enjoyable frisson
The right choice of voices, though, for such small-scale period works, is paramount and, sadly, a good blend was not always achieved. One of the sopranos had a particularly hard tone, and was not always in dynamic unity with the others in the ensemble, and this resulted in some detracting uneven timbres on occasion: the three voices for the Lully were mismatched, and the gentle waves of the suspensions in the normally gorgeous final ‘flevit amare’ of the Charpentier became choppy.