Marc Minkowski and
Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenobile,
heard by ROBERT HUGILL
Marc Minkowski's infectious enthusiasm conveyed itself not only to the performers from Les Musciens du Louvre-Grenoble but also to the audience at their concert at London's Barbican Hall on Sunday 18 January 2009. Such was the effect of Minkowski's enthusiasm that at the end of a concert lasting well over three hours, when he suggested that the choir and orchestra might perform two more pieces, the audience responded resoundingly and the performers gave us some of the most hauntingly beautiful music of the evening.
But then, few conductors would dare put together a programme which included Purcell's Hail Bright Cecilia, Handel's Ode for St Cecilia's Day and Haydn's St Cecilia mass. It might seem sensible to put on a concert which paid homage to three of this year's anniversaries and linked the composers via St Cecilia. But the resulting music would last getting on for three hours, though in the event Minkowski's planned programme truncated the Haydn to simply the Kyrie and Gloria (in effect half the work's eighteen movements).
That Minkowski and his orchestra, Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, and his choir, Choeur des Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, managed to bring the concert off says a lot both for their stamina, skill and for Minkowski's charisma and ability.
Two of this year's anniversaries can create problems with some continental choral groups; both Handel and Purcell wrote their greatest choral music in English so to tackle them you must be prepared to tackle the 'singing in English' question head on. Some French and Italian groups seem to have side-stepped the issue by performing Handel's Italian choral works, hence the rash of recordings of Il Trionfo del Tempio.
Minkowski's choir numbered some thirty people (female sopranos and a mixture of counter-tenors and female altos). Judging from the list of names in the back of the (free) programme, the majority are Francophone with a small sprinkling of Anglophone and non-Francophone singers. As such their English diction was almost exemplary. This should not have to be said, but even nowadays it is not guaranteed and so the choir music be complimented for it. As with many foreign groups singing English, they did not quite make enough of the words, something which counts for a lot in Handel and Purcell. But this is a relatively minor point and the group has a lively and interesting choral sound. It helps also that they are trained by the talented young conductor Nicholas Jenkins.
So much for the choir, now what of the soloists? Well, Minkowski's programme, whilst making a great deal of musical sense, rather required the budget stretching when it came to soloists as there were seven in all. For the Haydn he had engaged the fine quartet of Lucy Crowe, Nathalie Stutzmann, Richard Croft and Luca Tittoto. Of these only Tittoto was new to me, and his wonderfully dark grained, but highly mobile bass voice did not disappoint. It made sense that both Lucy Crowe and Richard Croft were the soloists in the Handel, which preceded the Haydn.
But Purcell's Hail! Bright Cecilia which opened the proceedings needs rather more and different soloists. Here we had Lucy Crowe, soprano, David Bates, counter-tenor, Anders J Dahlin, high tenor, Richard Croft, tenor, Neil Baker, bass-baritone and Luca Tittoto, bass. Both David Bates (himself the director of another early music group, La Nuova Musica) and Neil Baker were members of the Choeur des Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, so after the Purcell they disappeared back into the ranks, thus displaying their versatility.
Commentators (and artistic directors) do not all agree on the allocation of voice types in Purcell works such as this. Those that follow Andrew Parrott assign many of the alto solos to a high-tenor (of the Rogers Covey-Crump variety). Anders J Dahlin is a tenor of this school so Minkowski allocated him many of the alto solos which are sung by James Bowman on the Kings Consort recording.
Of the soloists only Dahlin and Tittoto were non-Anglophone, a canny move on Minkowski's part. Dahlin's English was excellent. Tittoto's was creditable, but was allied to such a wonderful voice and technique that you didn't worry; his account of 'Wond'rous Machine' was superb.
Dahlin, a noted Evangelist in the Passions, sailed through the high tessitura of his parts with ease and his performance proved one of the highlights in the Purcell. His mellifluous tones sounded quite at ease, with little hint of strain; this was combined with a winning manner and expressiveness. Lucy Crowe contributed a small but notable solo in 'Thou tun'st this world below'. Bates and Baker were, perhaps, a little too reserved in their duet, 'Hark, each tree its silence breaks', their English choral training coming out perhaps?
The odd moment of uncertainty in ensemble, and the way certain performers seemed overly dependent on their scores, suggested that rehearsal time may not have been quite as generous as it ought to have been. But this scarcely impacted the performance.
This was a notable performance of Purcell's masterwork. Minkowski gave due weight to the music's French accents but you never felt that you were hearing a French translation of Purcell, as can happen. With a relatively large choir and orchestra (both groups numbers around thirty each), we got a wonderfully full sound in the big ensemble numbers, but things never became soggy, rhythms were always crisp and lines were lithe.
After the first interval we were presented with Handel's setting of Dryden's poem (which itself had inspired Nicholas Brady's poem set by Purcell). From the first notes of the overture Minkowski ensured that we felt we were in a different work, rhythms were more massive and structural. Again, we did not get much of a French accent, thank goodness; there was no suggestion here of Handel mixed with notes inegales.
The choir was on form again, but it is really the orchestra and the soloists who count. Richard Croft gave a fine, robust account of his arias. This was perfectly fine and worked well, in its way, but Croft was rather put into the shade by the limpid beauty, articulation and sheer clarity of Lucy Crowe's soprano solos. And, of course, it is the soprano who gets the majority of solos in this piece.
Finally, after the second interval, we were treated to the Kyrie and Gloria from Haydn's St Cecilia Mass. Here all four soloists (Crowe, Stutzman, Croft and Tittoto) were exemplary, but it was soprano Lucy Crowe whom Haydn gave the opportunity to really shine. The chorus also had an important part to play with some significant fugues. The mass is an early and untypical Haydn mass; it is far longer than all the others for a start. And even after a long evening, Minkowski and his forces certainly left us wanting more. That they gave us more was a delight, especially as the 'Et Incarnatus' and 'Crucifixus' movements (from the Credo) allowed the underused Nathalie Stutzman to shine.
One issue in a programme like this is that of pitch standards. The performers must perform all three composers' works at the same pitch. The otherwise exemplary programme book made no mention of this and I would have welcomed some information as to how the pitch chosen for the evening by Minkowski compared to that used by Purcell, by Handel and by Haydn. In the bewildering world of seventeenth and eighteenth century pitch standards, it certainly would be a coincidence if all three composers used the same one.
Whilst not every group of performers will want to emulate Minkowski's programming, the concert with Les Musicians du Louvre-Grenoble must certainly go down as one of the highlights of this anniversary year.
Copyright © 20 January 2009
Robert Hugill, London UK