Hervé Niquet is certainly a man in a hurry. His brisk, no-nonsense approach to music-making has pushed his band Le Concert Spirituel to the forefront of the revival of French Baroque music, with a special emphasis on the pleasures and treasures of Versailles during the grand siècle.
That sense of urgency permeated a programme of works under the slightly misleading banner of ‘Venetian Splendours’. Frenchman André Campra never (as far as we know) visited Venice or had any of his works performed there. But stylistically, at least, there are some similarities with his great Venetian contemporary, Antonio Vivaldi. Both men were priests, and both hankered after the creative freedom, fame and fortune of the theatre. But whereas Vivaldi initially confined his theatricality to the touristic spectacles of performances at the Ospedale della Pietà, Campra expressed much of his sense of passion and drama through the Catholic liturgy. He was fortunate in this respect in that the Jesuits for whom he composed his Messe Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam promoted the rhetorical skills of theatre.
Niquet presented the mass with a four-part female choir. Twelve singers in all covered the tenor and bass as well soprano and alto parts. The solo sections, meanwhile, were sung as ensembles. They were accompanied by a string orchestra of ten, with the addition of two theorbo players plus chamber organ continuo. The resulting 25 players – together with Niquet towering over them – made quite a crowd on the Wigmore Hall stage. But despite the squeeze, a sense of cohesion, familiarity and enjoyment characterised the performance.
There was barely time for applause as Niquet launched headlong into lean and fast-paced renditions of Vivaldi’s motets Laetatus Sum and In exitu Israel. The fast tempi he employed had the favourable effect of pushing forward the narrative of both psalm-settings, and also of emphasising the straightforward but rhythmic nature of Vivaldi’s choral and instrumental writing. There was more opportunity for reflection and musical variation in the Magnificat, an early work for the Pietà girls, dating from about 1715, in which the singing was perfectly executed, with clearly accented strings and continuo.
After the interval, just two works completed the programme: Vivaldi’s motet Lauda Jerusalem and the celebrated Gloria. In Lauda Jerusalem – which dates from around the 1720s – the writing is more sophisticated than in the earlier works, and the Concert Spirituel singers responded admirably to Vivaldi’s decorative flutters. Niquet and his players reinvented the Gloria to suit the resources at their disposal and also to demonstrate their musical versatility. For a start, there were no tenors or basses, so the male parts were again taken by the 12 female singers. Once more, the solo arias were sung by ensembles of singers. And there was no trumpet either. But the resulting Gloria – lithe and very upbeat – sounded like something that just might have been heard at the Pietà once the tourists had gone back to their lodgings. Certainly, its success with the Wigmore audience prompted an encore of the Domine fili movement, at the end of which Niquet turned his fluttering directing hand into a wave, leaving the Concert Spirituel to finish off without him.