Purcell, Bach, Pergolesi: the programme isn't exactly a staple of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, whose calendar is mostly filled with music of the 19th century and later. For Southern Californian early music fans, it was a good opportunity to get a fix of that period's music in the splendour of Walt Disney Concert Hall. For some LA Phil regulars, including those sitting near me, it was a chance to sample unfamiliar fare, not least in the shape of the orchestra being conducted from the harpsichord, by Emmanuelle Haïm, and in the vocal pairing of soprano and countertenor.

Emmanuelle Haïm © Simon Fowler
Emmanuelle Haïm
© Simon Fowler

Haïm was a bundle of energy, launching into the suite from Purcell's The Fairy Queen with verve, with a slimmed down LA Phil (5-5-5-4-2 in the strings) happy to follow her lead. For my taste, the pace was somewhat too frenetic in the opening Hornpipe, and I was happy when things calmed down a bit for the ensuing Air, played beautifully on a pair of oboes, recorder with percussion. Throughout the suite, given the use of modern instruments and the relative quietness of lute and harpsichord, the recorder was the most notable instrument that added period colour.

The two singers impressed in different halves. In the Purcell, it was American soprano Laura Claycomb who shone more. You couldn't describe Claycomb as a Baroque specialist – her repertoire is far too broad for that – but she is clearly very comfortable with the genre, making an impact from the first notes of the lament “O let me weep”, the voice suffused with sweetness, dramatic and soulful without overblown romanticism. Christophe Dumaux's air “If Love's a Sweet Passion” showed a high quality voice but felt restrained in comparison. The two voices combined well in the improbably named “Song for a Chinese Woman and a Chinese Man”. The different combinations of voices and instruments, including a notable trumpet fanfare, made this a good advertisement for Purcell.

The next work needed no introduction – Bach's Orchestral Suite no. 3, with its famous Air. With so familiar a piece, it can be difficult to surpass one's expectations, but Haïm did just that. The famous theme was handed seamlessly from one group of instruments to the next, giving the feel of a single, continuous melody that lasts forever, but what impressed most was the poise of the accompanying patterns of chords, strongly marked with insistent forward motion, but never mannered or overstressed, always allowing the melody to breathe. The other movements were attractively played, particularly the joyful first Gavotte, but unsurprisingly, none achieved quite the same impact.

Any composer setting the Stabat Mater has to contend with the fact that the text consists of twenty stanzas of unremitting grief and lamentation, which isn't unreasonable, given the subject matter of Mary mourning the dead Christ, but risks creating a gloomy evening of music. Pergolesi solves this in the simplest possible way, by permitting himself to use many different moods, without particularly strong match to the nuance of the text. The result is 35 minutes or so of music which strays far from the orthodoxy of the liturgical music of his day, entertaining with many dramatic and operatic devices, several of the stanzas surprisingly jaunty.

The orchestra propelled the music forward with a measured but insistent tread as the voices soared above it – the bass figures rising this time. Dumaux was especially impressive in the Quis est homo, producing long high notes which developed in colour as they were sustained. Claycomb continued to show her sweetness of tone, but I had concerns about diction: I was able to make out only a limited amount of the Latin text. The best was left until last, the Quando corpus morietur rounding the work off with authority.

For the encore, lighter fare: Haïm leading a few continuo players to accompany the duet “Pur ti miro” from Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, sung romantically and lyrically to send us home with a smile.

As an afterword: this was my first visit to Disney Hall. It's remarkable that a space built for full scale symphonic music can work so well on music that is so much lighter in weight with so pared down an orchestra, with every nuance clearly audible. For anyone visiting LA, any concert here is worth the visit.

***11