Les Arts Florissants, Union Chapel, Islington

5.00

Of all the ensembles celebrating an anniversary this year, William Christie and Les Arts Florissants - now toasting three decades of ground-breaking experiment - have most reason to congratulate themselves. Thirty years ago, when they embarked on their still-ongoing project to bring French Baroque music into focus, they were tilling virgin territory; if it’s now all flowers and fruit trees, that’s largely thanks to them. Moving on from Charpentier (who gave them their name) to Purcell, Handel, and Haydn, they have continued their quest: hats off to the Barbican, which - in collaboration with the Salle Pleyel and the Cite de la Musique - has commissioned their lap of honour this autumn.

To catch them in Islington's Union Chapel - usually a venue for rougher kinds of music - was to find them in peak form: this performance of Monteverdi's sixth book of madrigals honoured the sublimity of the music as I have never heard it honoured before. Six singers, backed by harp, archlute, theorbo, and harpsichord, seemed a very small army to take on this massive stone space, but they effortlessly filled it with gossamer flights and astonishingly dark bass sonorities.

Monteverdi's Book Six was composed when he was going through a terrible vale of sadness, with his young wife dying, and his star soprano Caterina Martinelli - virtually his adoptive daughter - being carried off too. His now-lost opera 'L'Arianna' had been written for Martinelli: all that remains to us is a solo version, and a five-voice madrigal arrangement, which is what the singers began with here. It really did sound as though the anguished opening phrase 'Lasciatemi morire' - 'Let me die' - was the composer speaking: as the four-part piece ran its course from despair to denial to rage to numbed acceptance, we were swept irresistibly along too.

As the multiplicity of recordings now proves, there are a thousand ways of getting Monteverdi wrong - or just not quite right, which is almost as bad. Some groups are prissily over-precise, some are too dry, some are too emotionally steamy: since performance styles are necessarily a matter of conjecture, informed artistic judgment is crucial. Spare and intimately conversational, yet generating huge power, Les Arts Florissants hit the mark unerringly. They can breathe and sigh as one instrument, and they can fragment into a medley of angrily contending voices; their line is pure, with only the merest hint of vibrato; with them, meaning is all. Each of the singers had their own unique sound, but two or three stood out - notably Sean Clayton, possessor of one of the most delicately expressive tenor voices I have ever heard; tenor Paul Agnew was the ideal singer-director.

Suiting the madrigals' different demands, they arranged themselves in constantly changing permutations, and in a variety of formations - a line, a circle, a horseshoe. When it came to 'Sestina: Lament of a lover at the Tomb of his Beloved', they dispensed with instrumental backing and sat in a semi-circle with their knees almost touching; the pathos of their delivery was all the more persuasive. When the mood lightened, with the music evoking sunlit valleys, flocks of birds, and the wind in trees, everything was conjured up with the most exquisite artistry. This concert simply got better, as the palpable concentration of the audience fuelled a similar intensity of focus on stage. And one realised anew how modern this music is, with its daring chromaticism, and its long-suspended muscular dissonances.

Those wanting to hear Les Arts Florissants singing Monteverdi on disc can do so thanks to the 30-Cd set which Warners have just released. The final concert in this series is on 26 November, when William Christie conducts the ensemble in 'Grands Motets' in the Barbican Hall.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor