MUSIC: A dash of French polish

Le Concert Spirituel Snape Maltings
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The centrepiece of the second Aldeburgh Early Music Festival at Snape Maltings was the UK debut on Saturday of the French ensemble Le Concert Spirituel. This is only one of a number of groups in France who are actively exploring riches of that country's musical past. Here, the best known of these is still William Christie's Les Arts Florissants, but it will surely not be long before Le Concert Spirituel also make their mark in Britain.

They came to a characteristically bleak Eastertide Snape with sponsorship from a French pharmaceutical group (Le Laboratoire Oberlin) and the City of Paris, and with further support from the Association Franaise d'Action Artistique and the Institut Franais. Presumably without support such as this, their participation within the context of this small, but to all appearances highly successful, festival would not have been possible.

Other leading French groups, like Les Arts Florissants or Marcel Prs's Ensemble Organum, enjoy a similar level of support - and it shows, both in the adventurousness of programming and the quality of performance. Le Concert Spirituel presented a programme of sacred music by Charpentier, Lorenzani and Gilles which they performed with complete stylistic conviction and a polish that could only be described as French. One result was that they drew a noticeably warm response from a British audience, many of whom had probably head little, if any, of this repertory previously.

It helps, of course, that the music itself is of the utmost beauty. Jean Gilles's dramatic setting of three Lamentations for Holy Week abounds in breathtaking moments of chromaticism and vivid contrast that highlight the extreme penitential nature of the text. Charpentier's more concise Mass in D minor is not without a certain grandeur, and although at times it seemed a little perfunctory, there was another moment to relish at the "Et incarnatus est" in the Credo. Two motets by Paolo Lorenzani, an Italian composer who served Queen Marie-Thrse, were interpolated before the Sanctus and after the Agnus Dei (apparently according to period practice), and they bore witness to yet another fine, all-but forgotten composer working at the French court towards the end of the 17th century.

In all this, the small group of players and singers who formed Le Concert Spirituel on this occasion, together with a fine team of soloists (the star being the British soprano Ruth Holton), brought out the richness of texture and expressiveness of the musical idiom - and this despite the appearance of their conductor, Illerv Niquet. The phrase "traffic cop" is often bandied about among the more hard-bitten of orchestral players, but Niquet's conducting style is an unusual hybrid: motorway jam out of windmill. Nevertheless, the results were impressive, suggesting a degree of rehearsal denied most British groups through lack of funding.

The French government's investment in the rediscovery of France's musical past is already paying dividends - sales of early music recordings in France are comparatively high - but, more importantly, these excellent French ensembles can still afford to put on meticulously rehearsed concerts of little-known repertory, something which is sadly becoming an increasingly rare occurrence for British groups.