Specialized in historically informed interpretation, Emmanuelle Haïm takes a passionate, energetic approach to Baroque music, but one coupled with a humble lack of showmanship, one that is as attractive as it is infectious. No nonsense, no whiling away in the spotlight; for Haïm, the music is the thing. She is only the third woman to conduct the renowned Vienna Philharmonic, which collected in a smaller configuration for this Lucerne concert.

Emmanuelle Haïm © Priska Ketterer
Emmanuelle Haïm
© Priska Ketterer
It began with Handel’s Concerto Grosso, spirited interludes that made an alternative to the opera serie genre the London audience in the 1730s had begun to find boring. From the first movement, concertmaster Volkhard Streude’s virtuoso violin was startling in its precision and dynamism, and the 30-strong orchestra followed suit. Haïm herself was highly animated, often raising her chin for an entrance, stretching and pulling out the tones with her dancer-like fingers, sweeping and bending her body to give cues. Her deliberate pauses increased the tension of surprises to come; slapping open a page of her score on a down beat with a vehemence that could knock out a grown man. But modestly, she left the stage quickly in small steps at the end, almost as if she didn’t belong there, as if the honours were due the musicians alone.  

Two suites from Handel's famous Water Music followed. Adhering to a form that reflects dances in the then-current French opera, the work premiered in July 1717 in response to King George's request for a nocturnal concert on the Thames. Sparkling with festive illumination, the royal barge travelled upstream from Whitehall to Chelsea, accompanied by a musicians’ boat carrying fifty − violins and basses, trumpets, horns, flutes, recorders, horns and bassoons – all of whom played all the way back up to London, too. The Courant described "the whole River… covered with boats and barges;” the lights, fine fabrics and aristocratic chatter must have made a delightful spectacle for those along the shore.

Sebastian Marcq and Sandrine Piau © Priska Ketterer
Sebastian Marcq and Sandrine Piau
© Priska Ketterer
Here in Lucerne, and befitting the hall on our own scenic water body, Emmanuelle Haïm adopted spunky gestures for the pizzicato segments in Suite no. 3. Recorder soloist Sebastian Marcq seemed in a jovial mood, moving to the rhythm before his entrances, his playing confidently projected. Christoph Sommer’s lively lute and Sophie Dartigalongue’s sublime bassoon were fine complements to Haïm’s energetic conducting style.

In Suite no. 1, I was struck by the truly believable “dialogue” among the instrument groups and how the conductor’s whole body became her baton, setting her markers with broad movements at many levels. Her hands resembled shadow puppets in their configurations, the hem of her long black skirt repeatedly tapping the floor like a pulse, and as familiar as it is, the suite took on tremenous new vibrancy.

After the interval, in Il delirio amoroso (The Delirium of Love), French soprano Sandrine Piau drew on her command of Baroque opera to sing the story of Chloris and Thyrsis, a stock pair of lovers in an idealized Arcadia. Early in his career and in Rome, Handel had counted high-ranking clerics among his patrons, men for whom classical antiquity represented the peak of art and science, and who gladly expounded on the pastoral conceits of shepherds and shepherdesses falling in and out of love. In 1707, amateur poet Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili wrote the libretto in which the abandoned Chloris dreams of descending into the depths of hell to try and bring back the deceased Thyrsis. He had never returned her love while alive, and rejects the poor girl even in Hades. Despite that, she takes him to the Elysian fields – land of “flowers, music and singing” – at the cost of her own life.

Piau sang the narrative with a tone one might best compare to fine Waterford crystal. Her voice was transparent, and studded with deeply carved rosettes and the solid ballast of optimal pacing and breathing. That her character’s “light of… bright intellect (was) clouded by the great flame of love” was wholly convincing. And she herself was the star on stage, the diaphanous skirt and sleek silvery gown putting a tad of the celestial even into her wardrobe choice.

As two proponents of Baroque, Piau and Haïm have worked together before, and their rapport in this last piece was palpable. In the programme notes, music critic Wolfgang Stähr cites the enlightened entertainment of Handel as one that liberally quoted French culture and its musical practice. No wonder, then, that both these artists felt so much at home.