Monday 9 November 2009

Les Arts Florissants at the Union Chapel

As part of their 30th anniversary celebrations, Les Arts Florissants presented a concert of Monteverdi's 6th Book of Madrigals. Instead of their usual home of the Barbican Hall, they de-camped to the rather more Gothic surroundings of the Union Chapel in Islington. This huge octagonal chapel is hardly a space that you would immediately associated with Monteverdi's rather intimate madrigals, but in fact the lively but not over resonant acoustics seemed to work rather well. Also, given that 7 sides of the chapel have balconies, sight lines were pretty good.

An ensemble of 6 singers and 4 instrumentalists was nominally directed by Paul Agnew, with William Christie being unusually absent. In fact Agnew sang tenor (he was one of the 6 singers) and his direction was so discreet as to be almost invisible, surely the best sort, as the singers and instrumentalists seemed to interact quite naturally - though I am quite sure that this was the result of a great deal of rehearsal.

The singers, Miriam Allen, Hanna Morrison, Maud Gnidzaz, Anne Magard, Sean Clayton, Paul Agnew and Lisandro Abadie, come from a variety of backgrounds and countries, so one of the groups most impressive feats was the way that the blended and interacted so beautifully. Throughout the evening, you were aware of the individual singers listening to each other and reacting. As Monteverdi divides his soloists into ensembles, duets and trios, so the singers reacted accordingly. The voices were blended into a rather Consort of Musicke type English sound, with perhaps just a little added vibrancy. Whilst not as cool in performance as the Consort of Musicke, they were not quite a richly vibrant as some of the Italian groups singing this repertoire.

The continuo instruments (harp, archlute, theorbo and harpsichord) were generally discreet and in the centrepiece of the programme, the sestina Lagrime d'Amante al Sepolcro dell'Amata, the singers performed unaccompanied in a profoundly intimate manner.

In these rather unlikely surroundings Les Arts Florissants managed to communicate brilliantly with their audience, conveying the intense nuances of Monteverdi's music.

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