It is salutary to recall that, as recently as 40 years ago, Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1645-1704) remained little more than a historical name in French music. If, today, he rates with Purcell as one of the two greatest composers of the late 17th century, his re-emergence must largely be credited to the scholar-harpsichordist William Christie and his cultivated company of singers and players, Les Arts Florissants - named after one of Charpentier's most attractive dramatic cantatas.
To celebrate their 25th-anniversary season, which happens to coincide with the 300th anniversary of Charpentier's death, what could be more fitting than a performance of Les Arts Florissants itself? Originally mounted in Paris in 1686, this 40-minute piece shows the flourishing state of the Arts under Louis XIV, suddenly disrupted by the incursion of La Discorde - until La Paix restores order and all unite in praise of the Sun King. In idiom, the music is liable to strike the British listener as a kind of more laid-back Purcell, less immediately memorable in melody, perhaps, but with its own colouristic palette, rhythmic subtlety and, in the final dance sequence, a meltingly serene expansiveness.
Within a minute of Christie's eight singers and 15 players taking the stage, their uncanny affinity for this music was evident once more: a kind of individualised spontaneity that yet breathes as one. And not only breathes, but moves. Vincent Boussard's semi-staging amid nodding blooms designed by Christian Lacroix may have a postmodern insouciance, but the natural ease with which the cast gestured and moved with the phrasing as the bright "La Musique" of Olga Pitarch praised the Monarch, and Sophie Daneman's sumptuous "La Paix" calmed the agitation was a world away from the self-conscious stiffness of Jonathan Miller's British singers in his comparable staging of Monteverdi's Orfeo last year.
In fact, the second half was given over to Charpentier's own impressive treatment of the same myth in his hour-long La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers (1687) - with Paul Agnew in the title role, his plummy English tenor somewhat overbearing the lighter French-style voices of the rest of the cast. Here, the vernal freshness of the opening act before Eurydice is fatally stung is tellingly contrasted with the sombre timbres of Hades, in which Charpentier accompanies Orphée's pleas with a cavernous trio of bass viols - heightened by Christie switching from harpsichord continuo to organ, with a more reedy regal to accompany Joao Fernandes's baleful Pluton.
The score breaks off with Orphée and Eurydice about to return to life. Whether or not Charpentier planned, or even completed further acts, it made for an entirely satisfying experience as it stood.Reuse content