Friday 26 June 2015

Le Concert Spirituel in Vivaldi and Campra

Le Concert Spirituel - Copyright Eric Manas
Le Concert Spirituel - Copyright Eric Manas
Vivaldi and Campra; Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 25 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Seductive sound and seriously brilliant music making in a concert exploring the sound of upper voices

Hervé Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel brought a programme of Andre Campra and Antonio Vivaldi to the Wigmore Hall on Thursday 25 June 2015. Billed as Venetian Splendours the programme paired music by the two composer priests, both contemporaries though they probably never met, with Campra's Messe Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam and a group of work's which Vivaldi wrote for La Pieta, Laetatus Sum RV607, In exitu Israel RV604, Magnificat RV610, Lauda Jerusalem RV 609 and Gloria RV589. Splendid though the music was, what Herve Niquet's programme really explored was the sound-world of music for women's voices. Using a four-part female choir (with, presumably, the tenor and bass parts sung up an octave) and singing all of the solo parts tutti, the result was a very distinctive and very seductive sound-world, with some seriously brilliant music making.

Herve Niquet - Copyright Eric Manas
Hervé Niquet
Copyright Eric Manas
In fact, my main complaint about the evening was that the article in the programme note seemed to be completely unaware of the specifics of the evening's performance, and so not only referred to tenor and bass parts, and soprano solos, but gave us no inkling as to Hervé Niquet's rationale. No matter, the music making was certainly strong enough to stand for itself.

Hervé Niquet used a choir of 12 (three women per part) and an ensemble of 13, resulting in some 26 people on stage which was quite a tight fit on the Wigmore Hall stage. They made a strong, vibrant sound with Herve Niquet encouraging his string players to play in a highly accented, vividly projected manner which contrasted beautifully with the smooth but strong sound from the women singers. The singers did not use too much vibrato and made a nice, straight sound, but the result was not white and bland, it was very direct and strong with the vibrancy of individual voices coming over particularly in the lower ones (billed as mezzo-sopranos the lower voices certainly included one or two lovely strong contraltos). It was a fine, confident and beautifully crafted sound. And the singers skill was exemplified by the way Hervé Niquet had the solos sung by three or six singers, not only making a good strong sound but the women providing a remarkable unanimity in the more elaborate ornamented passages.
Campra's Messe Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam is one of three masses he wrote. It uses a lot of doubling of the voices and instruments, and in fact Campra writes that the mass may be performed with or without the instrumental doubling, which seems to have encouraged Hervé Niquet to perform it with the women's voices only. It was a lovely, rather direct piece with the text coming over well. Often quite stately, the voices wove in and out of each other in a stately dance making an attractive texture with the doubling instruments. The singers made a very stylish sound indeed and, of course, being French 17th or early 18th century music there were lots of trills, all beautifully executed.

Vivaldi's Laetatus Sum RV607 and In exitu Israel RV604 are psalm settings designed for Vespers. Written early on in his period writing sacred music for them, he takes no risks. The choral parts are essentially brisk homophonic declamations of the text, with lively instrumental accompaniment underneath. Hervé Niquet made the most of this contrast, taking the pieces at quite a lick and encouraging the strings to provide crisply articulated and brilliantly involving (toe-tapping) accompaniment to the strong choral sound. It was quite a bravura effect, but if I had heard them like that in a service I would have been upset that the performance gave no room for contemplation of the text of the psalm.

At this point in the evening another query popped into my head. What pitch were the pieces being performed at, was French and Venetian pitch the same at that period? It would have been interesting to learn such details.

Vivaldi's Magnificat is one of the first works he wrote for La Pieta. It is in nine varied movements, and Vivaldi used quite a limited number of choral techniques with a lot of unison but skilfully weaving the whole into an appealing mix which opens in grand solemn fashion, before livelier textures take over. The Et misericordia section was perhaps the longest, with its highly appealing polyphonic texture.

After the interval we heard just two works, the Vespers psalm Lauda Jerusalem and the well known Gloria. Lauda Jerusalem started with a brisk busy string texture over which Vivaldi placed a highly imitative chorus, here the choral writing was far more developed than in the earlier works and the results were completely seductive in this all high-voices version. As I have said, solo lines were taken by tutti making a very full sound, but quite brilliantly articulating the twiddles. The whole, with its brisk speeds, vibrant performance and strong, all-female choral sound added up to a very particular vision of these works, but a very appealing one.

This continued with Vivaldi's Gloria, the best known work in the programme but which Herve Niquet and his players succeeded in making something new. There were plenty of contrasts, between the more up-tempo movement and the slower ones, between the crisply articulated strings and the strong line of the singers, all making for a seductive whole finishing with brisk vim and vigour. One very notable moment was the final alto solo, taken strongly and firmly by all six mezzo-sopranos making fabulous rich sound. Perhaps not quite Vivaldi as the composer knew it, but a convincing re-interpretation.

The substantial audience responded very warmly, and we were treated to an encore, the Domine fili movement from the Gloria during which Hervé Niquet left the performers to their own devices, waved to the audience and made as if to leave the stage.

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