MUSIC / The great reconciler: Nicholas Williams on French and German visitors to the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music in London

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The Independent Culture
For last Friday's Wigmore Hall concert in the Lufthansa Festival, Les Talens Lyriques chose the subject of the Querelle des Bouffons - not the continuing Tory Euro debate, but a far older squabble concerned with similar issues of style and substance.

This 18th-century dispute concerned the relative merits of the French and Italian operatic manners. Naturally there were contradictions of position. The Sun King's chief composer, Lully, was Italian, for one thing; for another, musicians on both sides of the Alps thought of the Roman violinist Arcangelo Corelli as the Dante, so to speak, of their profession.

Yet, prejudice aside, the friction proved creative, a point clarified by the ensemble's chronological programme. An air de cour by Michel Lambert was the oldest contribution, pure in its attention to proper French declamation, lacking only the blend of plaintive nobility which was Lully's unique gift to musical sensibility. Michel Pignolet de Monteclair's cantata La morte di Lucrezia, impeccably sung by the soprano Agnes Mellon, showed French hauteur succumbing to the infectious Italian manner. Francois Couperin's sonata La Francaise (from his collection Les Nations), directed by the impish Christophe Rousset, was a brilliant essay in reconciling the best of both worlds.

Bach, the great reconciler from the next generation, had pride of place at the gifted Freiburger Barockorchester's Monday recital, also at the Wigmore Hall. Focusing on the borderline between sonata and suite, they also included works by the Bohemian Zelenka and the Symphony in B minor by Bach's son, Carl Philipp.

Zelenka's Sinfonie a 8 concertanti erupted with bold invention and strongly expressed sentiment. The missing element was an equally strong sense of personality giving unity to the whole. The intrigues of quirky bass-lines soon paled; the most striking passage was a weeping cello solo in the Aria da capriccio, slowly unwinding towards a longed-for cadence in a typically baroque way.

More eccentric still, though redeemed by its brevity, was the C P E Bach symphony. From the hesitant opening for strings to the dour, shifting fugatos of the presto finale, this work proceeded exclusively by contrasts. Yet they lacked the dialectical balance of the classical style. Each surprise manoeuvre led down a blind alley rather than to the next stage of an argument. The music was sustained by virtue of its sheer energy and conviction. Though the evening's shortest item, it proved the most exhausting.

In comparison, J S Bach's orchestral suites were models of decorum, though equally animated by the ensemble. Gottfried von der Goltz, violin, channelled the band's high energy into gripping, idiomatic performances. Their sharply accented sound, without vibrato, would be fascinating to hear in modern repertoire by Andriessen or Martland.

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