Tuesday 10 December 2019

In the salon of Mlle de Guise: Solomon's Knot take us to 17th century France with a pair of Christmas pastorals by Marc-Antoine Charpentier

Solmon's Knot (Photo Alexander Barnes / Apple and Biscuit.)
Solmon's Knot (Photo Alexander Barnes / Apple and Biscuit.)
Marc-Antoine Charpentier In nativitatem Domini canticum H.416 and Pastorale sur la naissance de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ H.483; Solomon's Knot; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 December 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Two rarely performed Christmas pieces evoke 17th century France in highly engaging performances

Marie of Lorraine, Duchess of Guise (Balthazar Moncornet)
Marie of Lorraine, Duchess of Guise,
Charpentier's patronness
(Balthazar Moncornet)
Having in previous year's explored Christmas in Leipzig via the music of J.S. Bach and his predecessors at St Thomas's Church, Solomon's Knot returned to St John's Smith Square's Christmas Festival on Monday 9 December 2019 with a pair of Christmas pieces by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, In nativitatem Domini canticum H.416 and Pastorale sur la naissance de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ H.483. The works were performed by the singers, Clare Lloyd-Griffiths, Zoe Brookshaw, Kate Symonds-Joy, Peter Davoren, Thomas Herford, Marcus Farnsworth, Jonathan Sells & Alex Ashworth, with an instrumental ensemble of Eva Caballero and Marta Goncalves (flutes), Naomi Burrell and Beatrice Scaldini (violins), Joanna Miller (viola), Jonathan Rees (viola da gamba), Carina Cosgrave (violine), Jamie Akers (Theorbo/Lute), and William Whitehead (harpsichord/organ).

Famously Italian trained (he studied in Rome with Carissimi), Marc-Antoine Charpentier's style combined the French and the Italian rather too freely for the taste of some of his contemporaries. Coming up against the operatic monopoly of Jean-Baptiste Lully, Charpentier found a sympathetic home in the highly musical establishment of Mademoiselle de Guise, where even the servants sang and performed. And after her death, he moved to a nearby Jesuit Church.

In nativitatem Domini canticum is thought to date from this latter period of Charpentier's musical life. Setting various texts from the Bible in Latin, it starts by looking forward to Christ's birth with a group of voices imploring God to remembers his promise of salvation, an instrumental movement 'Nuit' follows invoking Christ's birth, and then the second part is devoted to the Shepherds and the Angels, whilst after a lively march for the Shepherds' journey to Jerusalem, the final part ends in general rejoicing.

The result is relatively short, and rather delightful. Charpentier uses his forces fluidly, moving between short arias, recitative-like sections and choruses. Peter Davoren, in the haut-contre part, brought a nice element of drama to his solos, with Jonathan Sells, Alex Ashworth and Marcus Farnsworth each having a moment. The transition from the opening sequence of general lamentation (based on the Psalms, including a surprisingly dramatic rendering of 'Rorate coeli desuper') to the Shepherds was the rather magical instrumental movement 'Nuit' with a lovely intertwining of the three upper string lines. The interaction between Shepherds and Angels had a nicely engaging element of drama, with another instrumental section, this time a perky dance, leading to the final section. In a striking coup, this starts with a quietly intent chorus of stupefaction, full of hesitating phrases, as the Shepherds encounter the Christ child for the first time. The lively rejoicing ultimately gives way to quiet contemplation at the end.

The Pastorale sur la naissance de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ is probably earlier, dating from around 1680, and was performed for Mlle de Guise (the surviving manuscripts include the names of the performers, many servants, with Charpentier himself singing the haut-contre part, here again Peter Davoren). But significantly, the language is French, that of the listeners, and we had to imagine ourselves in a relatively intimate salon in the Hotel de Guise (now the Hotel de Soubise, home of the Archives nationales), being both instructed and entertained.

After a graceful prelude, the surprisingly literate shepherds and shepherdesses discussed Holy Scripture and look forward to Christ's birth. The appearance of an angel (Clare Lloyd-Griffiths) introduced an element of drama with Lloyd-Griffiths' thoughtful calm contrasted with the lively choral responses. An ensemble of angels was written for a rather striking quartet of upper voices (Zoe Brookshaw, Clare Lloyd-Griffiths, Kate Symonds-Joy, Peter Davoren). The Shepherds' response had a lively dance-like element (something that was never far away in Charpentier's music), but in their enthusiasm the sheep have got away and two Shepherdesses (Zoe Brookshaw, Kate Symonds-Joy) lamented the death of the lamb (in a pre-figuring of Christ's own death) in a rather moving passage, but the revelation of Christ's birth triumph and the final section uses the allegory of the sun rising and falling. Solomon's Knot performed it in Charpentier's second revised version, which had required some neat scholarship to re-capture this version. The final chorus of Shepherds was calm and thoughtful, but large scale with some surprisingly complex textures, though the piece ended with a lively instrumental march!

Throughout the members of Solomon's Knot sang from memory (Marcus Farnsworth, who is not a regular member of the group, used a discreet crib; though no announcement was made, I presume he was a relatively last minute replacement), and showed a lively engagement throughout, reacting to other singer's performances and creating a lively feeling of engagement. There was a slight sense that St John's was a tad too large for this music, and that the music and the performance would have benefited from a smaller-scale venue. Yet this was a chance to hear some stylish, richly characterful and often luminously beautiful music in highly engaging performances. Charpentier brings a surprising amount of complexity to music which has a high degree of surface style, and it was clear that the group was enjoying the various challenges presented (not least of which is the prospect of singing in something like 17th century French, and 17th century French-accented Latin, a challenge which most singers rose to admirably).

This is repertoire that we ought to hear a great deal more of, and Solomon's Knot's distinctive approached ensured that the music felt coherent and beautifully thought through in performances that were highly engaged.

We were also treated to an encore, one of Charpentier's settings of the great O anthems O Oriens, which whetted our appetites for the complete set!

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