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Campra, Desmarest, Lully & Rameau - Grand Motets

Campra Exaudiat te Dominus (c.1703)
Desmarest Usque Quo Domine (1708)
Lully Te Deum(1677)
Rameau Deus Noster (c.1714)

Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
Amel Brahim-Djelloul soprano
Emmanuelle de Negri soprano
Toby Spence tenor
Cyril Auvity tenor
Marc Mauillon baritone
Alain Buet bass

Barbican Hall, London 26 November 2009

This was a landmark concert for British recognition and appreciation of early French baroque sacred music. William Christie with his Parisian Les Arts Florissants has gradually built up over thirty years a UK audience loyalty which enabled him to fill the Barbican Hall with Grand Motets by four French composers, of whom only Rameau has become a household name.

His period instrument players and chorus are steeped in the idiom and gave their all with conviction. The still obscure Desmarest and Campra set the scene and their motets were enjoyable to hear, though not especially illuminating of the texts, which were supplied with translations, and pronounced in proper style, with the French "u" which sounded very different from English/Latin. By the interval I was left with a little niggling doubt whether four of the motets would make for a satisfying concert; on these showings the names of Campra & Desmarest did not seem to demand memorising or further exploration of their music.

But William Christie is a great programme builder and presenter, one to be trusted. The long second half brought two irresistible works, the early Rameau's motet (long before he became the opera composer we have got to know, largely through Christie's indefatigable persistent championship) full of picturesque strokes of drama and lovely turns of phrase. Rameau rarely lets you down!

The grand finale was a major, and lengthy, celebratory Te Deum by Lully, who had generated considerable envy after 1672, when he manoeuvred himself into receiving a Royal Privilege which prevented anyone else from writing operas! Tonight's very Grand Motet was premiered at the baptism of Lully's first son, with the King as godfather. It is replete with pomp and rousing choruses, trumpets and drums building up the excitement and ensuring a prolonged ovation at the end. [Unfortunately, Lully conducted over-enthusiastically, stabbing his foot with his conducting staff, with fatal outcome from the infected wound; Christie, to be on the safe side, conducted it with his hands...]. The concert had been a long one, but that did not deter Les Arts Florissants from giving their very satisfied audience two encores!

The performances throughout were beyond criticism or reproach, but I have one reservation about the presentation. The six soloists all delivered their parts impressively, but they had seats at the extreme sides of the platform, left and right, and processed continually and distractingly back and forth to the centre to deliver their pieces, which sometimes were but one or two lines of music. The choir had been mostly ranged behind the orchestra in the usual way, but for the even grander Lully a group of singers was separated off nearer the front to the left side of the orchestra. This suggested another possible way to deploy the forces at Barbican Hall. I wondered whether for their original performances of these motets the solos were not more likely to have been taken from within the chorus, rather than by named star soloists?

Peter Grahame Woolf

The three Rameau Grand Motets are available on an Erato CD (2006). A good 9 minute video sample of a performance of one of them can be enjoyed on your computer.