Marc-Antoine Charpentier was one of many French Baroque composers whose pursuit of personal prestige was hampered by Jean-Baptiste Lully’s royal monopoly on the production of opera in Louis XIV’s Paris. On Dec 17, the Musicians of the Old Post Road presented their concert dedicated entirely to the music of Charpentier, entitled “Joyeux Noël: A French Baroque Christmas.” The concert was held at Boston’s beautiful Emmanuel Church, which also hosts the weekly Bach Cantata Series. In keeping with period practice, the group was coordinated by performers within the group, rather than a conductor. The regular members of the ensemble were joined by guest vocalists and instrumentalists, the majority of whom are regular performers in the Boston area.
In general, the concert was a very enjoyable event, offering a program of engaging works by one of the French Baroque’s “hidden masters.” The mixture of the regular ensemble members and guest artists, however, met with varied results. Most of the group’s members exhibited a strong grasp of Charpentier’s musical style, and their technical facility was nearly without issue. The group’s interpretations were generally successful, with just a few performance aspects that seemed inappropriate to the French Baroque style.
The program opened with In nativitatem Domini canticum, H. 314 (“On the birth of our Lord, a song”), the earliest and briefest of the composer’s Christmas-themed “dialogue” motets, relating the story of the angels’ annunciation of Christ’s birth to the Judæan shepherds. The instrumentalists’ performance was lively, effectively executing the Baroque dance-based style. The vocalists sang their parts cleanly, though in this selection they did not seem to exhibit the same level of engagement, or at least enthusiasm, as their instrumental colleagues; additionally, the quartet’s balance was generally off; tenor Matthew Anderson’s bright, powerful sound — more appropriate to the Italian Baroque style — often overwhelmed Terrence McKinney’s haute-contre (a vocal style similar to the counter-tenor). Anderson’s inclination to this bright, powerful sound would continue to create balance and style inequalities among the vocalists throughout the program.
The instrumentalists played two sets of Charpentier’s “Noëls” — instrumental arrangements of popular French Christmas carols; the first set followed the opening selection, the other set followed the intermission. These brief instrumental numbers are today the most popular of the composer’s relatively small output for instrumental ensemble alone. They were likely performed throughout the composer’s career; such pieces were commonly played for the yearly celebration of Midnight Mass and likely appeared in tandem with his many Christmas “dialogues” such as his In nativitatem Domini canticum, H. 314. Although full settings of the Mass Ordinary were rare in Paris at the time, as the king preferred low mass, at which the Ordinary was spoken or chanted, Charpentier composed a full setting based on a series of popular Noëls, the Messe de Minuit, H. 9. The ensemble performed these works in the order in which they appear in Charpentier’s compositional notebooks, adding a nice historical touch to their presentation.
The livelier Noëls were played with musical energy, while the slower selections were played gracefully and with great sensitivity to the musical texture and phrases; the handful of brief solos were handled with precision and elegance. In the up-tempo numbers, several of the string players (in particular guest violinist Jesse Irons) used an “off the string” approach closer to the Italian style, which led to a few technical blemishes created by bows momentarily slipping off the string.
Before intermission, the vocalists, joined by a small instrumental group of two violins, chalumeau (a Baroque predecessor of the clarinet), and continuo, performed the composer’s Magnificat, H. 73, with great technical accuracy and expression. Tenor Matthew Anderson again sang with a style simply too “masculine” for Charpentier’s music; unlike in the opening selection, however, his tone did sweeten when he was joined by fellow vocalists, creating a more effective ensemble balance.
The program closed with another of Charpentier’s Christmas-themed dialogue motets, the appropriately titled Dialogus inter angelos et pastores Judæa in nativitatem Domini, H. 420 (“Dialogue between the angels and the Judæan shepherds, on the birth of our Lord”). The anonymous text is divided into two parts: the opening section presents the plea for salvation, given the “chorus of the faithful”; the second section relates the story of the nativity from the point of view of the shepherds (a logical choice, given the popularity of the pastoral play in Louis XIV’s Paris).
The opening instrumental sinfonia effectively transported the audience to the librettist’s vision of a pre-Christian world wandering in darkness. McKinney’s opening solo, unfortunately, offered a weak rendition of the passionate opening plea for salvation. Bass Aaron Engbreth, on the other hand, offered a strong, elegant performance of the call for consolation. Soprano Roberta Anderson gave a stirring performance of the prayer for God’s coming, also leading a very effective transition into the chorus’s call for the heavens to be torn open, so that salvation may “rain down” upon the earth. Two instrumental movements preceded the nativity story: “Night” the peaceful night preceding the angel’s appearance to the shepherds, the ensemble created a beautiful static texture, out of which an occasional musical “star” would twinkle; “Awakening” provided an invigorating contrast, featuring a particularly moving solo by violinist Sarah Darling. Roberta Anderson sang the angel’s annunciation lyrically and elegantly, which was followed by the shepherds’ march to Bethlehem (another delightful instrumental interlude). Following the shepherds’ hymn of reverence upon finding the infant Jesus, the work was closed with a responsive hymn of praise between Roberta Anderson and the chorus, giving a rousing finish to the evening’s performance.