Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Les Musiciens du Louvre/Minkowski @ Barbican Hall, London

18 January 2009

It’s a shame Mendelssohn never wrote a paean to the patron saint of music. We might then have had an opportunity to hear each of this year’s anniversary composers in one concert.

To present three generations of Saint Cecilia was, however, pretty good going.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that each of these three pieces is instilled with the spirit of Albion (indeed, England and Englishness provided an additional theme) since it was here, after the establishment of The Gentlemen of the Musical Society of London in the seventeenth century, that the cult of Saint Cecilia took hold.

Much of the success of this lengthy evening rested on a fine clutch of soloists, but the concert’s momentum was sustained by the charisma of conductor Mark Minkowski and his ensemble Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble. We began with Purcell’s Hail! Bright Cecilia (Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day) (1692), a work that brings the composer’s strangeness and mysticism to the fore, with plangent airs and chorus sections book-ended by bombastic instrumental sections.

Lucy Crowe delivered her part impressively, but the piece gives preference to male soloists: Anders J. Dahlin’s tenor negotiated the difficult air ‘Tis Nature’s voice’ with apparent ease, and ‘Wond’rous machine!’, with its dance-beat rhythm and menacing bass line, was excellently sung by Luca Tittoto; his articulation might have wavered, but even Brits would have problems with ‘Tho’ us’d to conquest, must be forc’d to yield’.

One felt the ensemble gain further confidence with the syncopated swagger in the choral opening of Handel’s Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day (1739), a piece that is far more secular and theatrical in feel than Purcell’s. Set to John Dryden’s extravagantly poetic text, allegedly over a mere eleven days, this ode makes a moving case for musical celebration.

Our tour through the instruments, from ‘the trumpet’s loud clangour’ to the ‘soft complaining flute’, was led by two enchanting guides: Lucy Crowe, whose melting soprano can boast both strength and beauty, especially when duetting with cellist Nils Wieboldt, and flautist Florian Cousin, and tenor Richard Croft.

With Haydn’s Missa Cellensis (1766) we reached fully-fledged classicism. As Minkowski explained, there was only time for the Kyrie and Gloria parts in this evening’s concert, but these in themselves added up to the length of an entire mass. Previous soloists were here joined by Nathalie Stutzmann, whose rich voice (a true contralto) offered a very welcome contribution, and the ensemble played with great vitality and style.

This was something of a marathon event but worth every minute.

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