Les Talens Lyriques have been at the pinnacle of Baroque performance groups since their founding in the early 1990s and here an ensemble of four of their members, including director Christophe Rousset, brought a programme of Baroque music from their French homeland. The music was bound together further by a Versailles connection, with all featured composers apart from Rameau having held important musical positions at the French royal court. Les Talens Lyriques gave performances of the utmost sophistication and elegance, more than living up to their reputations of masters of this repertoire.

Christophe Rousset © Eric Larrayadieu
Christophe Rousset
© Eric Larrayadieu

The programme notes made mention of the conflict between the French and Italian styles of Baroque in the French musical scene of the 17th and 18th centuries and the quasi-chronological running order seemed to encapsulate that – the influence of Italian music seemed to creep in more and more as the concert progressed. Marais's Suite no. 5 encapsulated the refined elegance of the French Baroque. The prevailing mood was of a courtly grace, everywhere a buoyant lightness and crispness of rhythm in the overture's dotted figures. Even in the deliciously unhurried Sarabande, one felt the spirit of dance infusing the work. Rousset’s subtle harpsichord ornamentation at cadence points was an absolute delight throughout and the two violinists enchanted with their breezy back-and-forth exchanges.

Period instrument performances are rare enough in this country, let alone those featuring the wonderful viola da gamba. We were treated here to three movements from Antoine Forqueray's First Suite for gamba and continuo that took the audience on a journey showing off all the instrument is able to do. Atsushi Sakai made a wonderfully warm, resonant sound, conspicuously larger at the bottom end of the range but with a violin-like singing tone at the top. Forqueray calls for significant technical skill, especially in “La Portugaise” and Sakai was never fazed; virtuoso passagework was highly polished and delivered with panache and the intricate chordal patterns had a wonderful thrumming intensity. Sakai also showed off his command of lyrical phrasing in the yearning lines of the preceding “La Cottin”. A wonderful showcase for a gorgeous instrument.  

Les Talens Lyriques consistently brought out little touches of humour in the following La Piémontaise by François Couperin. One could hear the influence of the Italian school sneaking in; certain figurations in the violins sounding much like Italian concertos of the era (almost Vivaldian at times) but the whole work still reflected the typical French dance suite ethos. Of all the pieces, this demanded the greatest variety of mood from its solemn opening to the vivacious storms of later movements and this ensemble was more than equal to the task, creating great drama with some especially tempestuous violin playing.

After the interval we encountered the youngest composer of the set, Jean-Marie Leclair, in the form of his Deuxième Recréation de musique, another work with strong Italian influence. Les Talens Lyriques were significantly more extrovert here, the two violinists throwing off Leclair’s virtuosic lines with considerable élan in the Chaconne, almost feeling like a concerto movement at times. The three Piéces de clavecin en concerts of Rameau allowed the harpsichord of Christophe Rousset to come out of the basso continuo shadows in much the same way as the gamba did in the Forqueray. Rousset has an instinctual understanding of Rameau’s quasi-operatic characterisations with the flamboyant “La Poplinière” and the reticent “La Timide” providing a superb contrast. The final “Tambourins” were a riot of fun and colour and suffice it to say that Rousset had the measure of the technical demands as he swaggered through it, aided by the pointed little contributions of Sakai and Gilone Gaubert-Jacques on violin.

Last up was Couperin’s affectionate tribute to Corelli, that master of Italian Baroque, in L’Apothéose de Corelli. Each short movement was preceded by an introductory sentence of explanation, enunciated here in French by Rousset, following a hypothetical Corelli as he is accepted by the Muses into their midst through the most Italianate music of the evening. This, too, was a performance full of expressive contrasts, heard most notable when comparing the merry dialogue between instruments in the movements expressing Corelli’s enthusiasm and the opéra-ballet-like movement depicting his slumber.

Such are the acoustics of the Great Hall of the Auckland Town Hall that the space was undefeated by the challenge of four rather small-toned period instruments though one couldn't help but feel that the Concert Chamber would have made for a more intimate and appropriate experience. Only in the more extroverted moments of the Leclair and Couperin pieces did the violins threaten to overly dominate the sound – otherwise there was a deliciously refined sound balance. Les Talens Lyriques succeeded brilliantly in bringing the spirit of the Versailles court to Auckland – a chance to hear these master practitioners of French Baroque at work should not be missed.