Friday, July 4, 2008

Les Arts Florissants,Israel Festival 2008

The final concert of the 2008 Israel Festival was an evening of Baroque music performed by Les Arts Florissants (France). Les Arts Florissants, performing for the first time in Israel, is a Baroque ensemble including instrumentalists on original instruments as well as singers. It takes its name (The Flourishing Arts) from a short opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and is responsible for unearthing and performing a number of neglected, seldom-performed works of the 17th and 18th centuries. It was founded by William Christie in 1979. In 2007, countertenor Paul Agnew took over conducting the group. The concert on June 22 was part of “Harmony 60”, celebrating 60 years of the State of Israel with three months of cultural exchange between France and Israel.

The evening opened with G.F.Handel’s (1685-1759) Zadok the Priest (HWV 258), one of four coronation anthems Handel composed using the English text, for the coronation of George II of Great Britain in 1727; it has since been sung at every subsequent British coronation service. It is thought that Handel himself made the paraphrase from 1 Kings 1:39-40:

‘Zadok the Priest and Nathan, the Prophet anointed Solomon King.
And all the people rejoic’d, and said:
“God save the King, long live the King, may the King live for ever!
Amen, Hallelujah!”’

The orchestral introduction builds up the drama in preparation of the choir’s entry. The middle section “And all the people rejoic’d” certainly rejoices in a triple dance-like section. The festive final section returns to duple time, with Amens threaded in and out of the texture, ending in the Hallelujah, an ornate Baroque cadence. The choir’s English was excellent, as is their diction. Trumpeters, playing on natural trumpets (no valves) added brilliance and excitement to the performance.

French composer and violinist, Jean-Joseph de Mondonville (1711-1772) enjoyed great success in his lifetime. He was well known for his harpsichord music and in 1738 wrote the first manual on playing violin harmonics. Between 1734 and 1755 he composed 17 grand motets, nine of which have survived. These intense and dramatic motets, in the style of the late French Baroque, became dominant in the music of the Chapelle Royale before the Revolution. They consist of arias, duets, trios, choral sections and ritornelli as well as instrumental sinfonias. The last of the motets, “In exitu Israel” (Psalm 114 and not Psalm 113, as was written in the program notes), was composed in 1753 and first performed at the annual Mass in honor of the king. Depicting the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, it includes verbal and musical descriptions of the parting of the waters, of the Egyptians following the Israelites, with Mondonville using word-painting and tempo changes for dramatic use. British tenor Ed Lyon was very expressive, ornamenting with vibrati and other techniques. Baritone Marc Mauillon (France) has a powerful voice and showed superb control, performing runs and ornaments with ease. Soprano Sophie Daneman (U.K.) showed delicacy; her voice, however, was not full enough to always be heard in this setting.

Handel’s “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day”, composed in 1739, happens to be his second setting of the same poem by John Dryden. The main theme of the text is the Pythagorean theory of “harmonia mundi”, presenting music as a central force in the earth’s creation. St. Cecilia was considered the patron saint of musicians. Premiered at the Theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London, Handel drew material not only from his own Concerto Grosso no. 5 but also from Austrian composer and organist Gottlieb Muffat’s “Componimenti musicali”, a collection of keyboard pieces. With the dazzling and original result he achieved in a very different kind of Handel oratorio, I suppose the composer is to be pardoned for “borrowing” from another. Consisting of recitatives, choral sections, instrumental sections and soprano- and tenor arias, the work falls into two parts, with a march dividing between them, each part ending with an elaborate choral piece. Discussing the merits of various instruments in an appealing manner, the work presents much word painting and some outstanding solo playing by members of the orchestra – the ‘cello, for example, joining the soprano aria in section 5 and fine interaction between trumpeter and tenor on section 6:
‘The trumpet’s loud clangor
Excites us to arms
With shrill notes of anger
And mortal alarms.’
Section 8 was delicate and poignant, with solo flautist and Daneman discussing the “soft complaining flute” against the gentle accompaniment of theorbo and strings. Daneman and Lyon breathed color and meaning into arias and the choir was expressive, perfectly coordinated and polished.

“Les Arts Florissants” has an outstanding choir of soloists working with first class instrumentalists. The audience was excited by their performance as by Paul Agnew’s direction. The 2008 Israel Festival went out with a flourish of brilliance.

“Les Arts Florissants”
Sacred Music by Handel and Mondonville
Paul Agnew-conductor
Sophie Daneman-soprano
Ed Lyon-tenor
Marc Mauillon-baritone
The Jerusalem International Convention Center
June 22, 2008

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