The Golden Age of French Sacred Music Memorably Revealed by Le Concert Spirituel

The Golden Age of French Sacred Music:  Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet (director). Wigmore Hall, London 30.3.2014 (CC)


Anonymous                Beata viscera Mariae Virginis
Charpentier              Ouverture pour le sacre d’un évêque.
Gaudate fidèles.
Gratiarum actiones pro restituta Regis christianissmi.
Offertoire pour les instruments.
O pretiosum.
Domine Salvum fac Regem
Lully                           O dulcissime Domine
Le Prince                    Missa Macula non est in te



This was top-level concert programming, delivered at the very highest standard. The idea was to present, without interval, a concert of music themed around the Virgin which included a Mass with the individual movements separated by motets by Chapentier and Lully. The all-female line-up of the choir worked brilliantly, imparting a sense of purity.

The anonymous twelfth-century chant Beata viscera Mariae Virginis, performed seated by the choir, acted as “Procession”. Wonderfully together and underpinned by a sustained tone on the organ, it led to the Ouverture pour le scare d’un évêque (Overture for the consecration of a bishop). The brightness of the sound was perfect, but the Wigmore’s acoustic was hardly kind to the detail, at least from the very back of the hall. The spirited two-violin dialogues came across well. A Charpentier motet from the mid-1670s, Gaudate fideles, preceded the Kyrie and Gloria. Appropriately festive, it provided great contrast.

The Mass itself was the Missa Macula non est in te by Louis Le Prince, which has been recorded by the present forces. The extremely high writing was managed perfectly here, but it was the work itself that was the discovery. The beautiful harmonic shifts at the ‘Christe eleison’ and the gently unfolding ‘Qui tolls’ will live long in this reviewer’s memory.

For the ‘Graduel’ Charpentier’s beautiful Gratiarum actiones pro restituta Regis christianissmi, with its sparing and poignant use of counterpoint seemed the perfect choice. Yet it was the opening of the Credo from the Le Prince Mass that re-established the greatness of this piece, its flowering into counterpoint from the initial solo statement a thing of pure beauty. Over the course of its eight-minute duration it moves inevitably to a jubilant conclusion. A brief Offertoire pour les instruments (Charpentier) led to Lully’s O dulcissime Domine, notable for its stunningly realised suspensions.

Le Prince’s Sanctus included true blossomings as well as a markedly rhythmic ‘Osanna’, markedly in contrast to the internal workings and restraint of the ‘Agnus Dei’, with its desolate strings. Its complement was to be the heartfelt, glowing counterpoint of the Charpentier motet, Domine Salvum fac Regem. It was Charpentier who had the last word, his joyful and radiant Magnificat (H75) providing the perfect ending (as well as, obviously, the ‘Motet de sortie’).

Curiously, this was the second interval-less concert that finished at exactly 8:50pm in two days (see my review of Birtwistle’s Yan Tan Tethera). Such is the joy of London concert life, that the one can easily follow the other.
Colin Clarke

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