Bach and Handel Are Beautifully Served by Les Violons du Roy

United StatesUnited States Bach, Handel: Isabelle Faust, Pascale Giguère (violins), Les Violons du Roy / Bernard Labadie (conductor), Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 26.4.2018. (DD)

Les Violons du Roy

Bach – Three Leipzig Chorales (transc. Labadie) BWV651, 660, 655; Violin Concerto in E major BWV1042; Violin Concerto in A minor BWV1041; Contrapunctus XIV from The Art of Fugue (completed by Labadie after Davitt Moroney) BWV1080; Concerto for Two Violins in D minor BWV1043

Handel – Concerto Grosso in D major Op.6 No.5 HWV323

At the center rear of the stage in the Walt Disney Concert Hall was an open harpsichord bearing the motto ‘Sic transit gloria mundi on the underside of its lid. Circling around towards the front of the stage were fifteen players, ten women and five men; as the instrument pitch range moved from high to low, the orchestra’s gender transformed from female to male. Conductor Bernard Labadie was seated on the podium, overseeing his marvelous ensemble.

The program began with transcriptions of three Bach Leipzig Chorales, ‘Komm, Heiliger Geist’, ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’ and ‘Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend’. The instrumental transcriptions by Labadie were a remarkably original and enticing way to begin the program: the extraordinary imagination of the composer is on display in these intellectual, yet profoundly beautiful and emotional, creations. They also serve to demonstrate the steady perfection that Bach demands of his players.

The second piece was the only non-Bach entry of the evening: Handel’s Concerto Grosso in D major, one of his most beloved creations, a composition that bursts with joy and humor while observing the constraints of the medium. Or perhaps ‘barely observing’ might be more accurate in the fifth movement, an allegro that is nothing less than a musical miracle. Conceived with the sparest of elements (a three-note figure ending in a trill with a four-note scalar fragment tagged on), this single movement has more good-natured musical joy and buoyant humor than a single concerto grosso ought to.

The program’s first half ended with Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major, one of his sunnier compositions, while the second half began with the Violin Concerto in A minor, a far stormier affair. Soloist Isabelle Faust, highly regarded for the breadth of her repertoire and her intelligent interpretations in multiple genres, possesses a firm sense of style without any discernable egotism: she is virtuosic without swagger, and fit in comfortably with the ensemble. Her playing is a model of elegance and poise, and her sensibilities were perhaps on best display in the denser passages of the second movement of the A minor concerto. Against a repeated ostinato, Faust could change moods seemingly with only the pressure and direction of the bow, and the intentions and feelings were rendered in deeply human terms.

Isabelle Faust is a superstar in all ways: an interpretative presence with the subtlest of distinctions, consistent yet varied articulation and close attention to detail while presenting a unified whole. She’s also fun to watch! I’d love to hear her in a live performance of the Berg Concerto, (and, as I type this, a dozen other concertos and solo pieces come to mind).

Bach’s unfinished masterwork, The Art of Fugue (Die Kunst der Fuge), is rarely done in concert, let alone by a large ensemble, and the reasons are clear: the instrumentation is unspecified, the intent is arguably didactic and the drama is about as internalized as could be imagined. The Contrapunctus performed by Les Violons du Roy is unfinished, most likely due to the composer’s death. It also has the notes B-A-C-H (H being the German version of B flat) as a core element of its fugue subject.

This was a wondrous experience (and both the intensity and the volume of the applause confirmed it). Its period-proper approach was pure; the music and performance silenced the audience and demanded the concentrated attention of the performers. It wasn’t easy listening but rather a rarefied treat for Bach groupies like myself. The inserted composed-conclusion by Labadie, reworked from UC Berkeley professor Davitt Moroney’s fugal realization, was serious, understated and musically appropriate.

(Those who would wish to better understand this unfinished final fugue, its relation to the golden ratio, the Fibonacci series, Bach’s ‘signature’ and other mysteries of this composer, might start with Douglas Hofstadter’s smart and accessible Gödel, Escher, Bach, surely one of the more entertaining, and sometimes irritating, books in musical/cultural/literary history.)

The final piece, the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, brought Faust back on stage with her co-soloist, Concertmaster Pascale Giguère. They produced yet another marvel in performance conception and execution. The precision of the ensemble, the melodic discourse through dialogue and the evident fun they all had playing it was infectious. The drama and emotions of this concerto contrasted intentionally and artfully with the previous Contrapunctus, particularly in the slow and stately second movement, a Largo ma non tanto, which contains one of the great dialogues in music history between soloists. I, for one, was happy to be quietly seated at the table: ‘Sic gloria transit mundi’!

Douglas Dutton

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