On Friday Bernard Labadie and his Violons du Roy provided a respite from a freezing, wintry, Montreal evening with heart-warming performances of music by two neglected masters of the 18th century: Jean-Philippe Rameau and Christoph Willibald Gluck. Having recently returned from a successful European tour partnering the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, Labadie and his Quebec City-based chamber orchestra continued their Montreal season in Pollack Hall. The concert, originally scheduled for Salle Bourgie, had had to be relocated to Pollack Hall when water damage incapacitated Salle Bourgie for a week. The relocation may have caused certain production difficulties but musically, events progressed swimmingly.

This beautifully conceived evening revealed itself to be a lesson in historical geography as much as musical history. All the pieces presented were composed within four years of each other and if anything, the comparison of works by the French Rameau and the Italian-influenced German Gluck, displayed how musical styles and traditions varied so widely from one part of Europe to another during the same period. Rameau was admittedly at the end of his compositional life when he wrote his ultimate operatic masterpiece in 1763, the ‘tragédie en musique’, Les Boréades. Indeed he died during rehearsals for the work and the opera was withdrawn, only rediscovered and performed in the 1960s.

In many respects, the work represents the pinnacle of French baroque operatic style. The massive work contains the customary vocal airs but also numerous divertissements comprising dance and instrumental sections. From the outset of the overture, the precision of the string sections laid the foundations for a musically refined interpretation that was, however, dominated and distinguished by wind ensemble playing of the highest order. Mathieu Lussier (bassoon) and Vincent Boilard (oboe) in particular not only negotiated Rameau’s cruel tessitura with ease but helped underscore the composer’s langourously rich harmonic language. This was especially true in both the overture and the exquisite Entrée to the opera’s fourth act, in which Lussier’s phrasing was breath-taking. The originality and innovative nature of Rameau’s writing (he was 80 years of age at the time) was a constant source of wonder, particularly in the “Gavotte pour les heures et les zéphirs”in which bassoons are joined by two piccolos in carrying a lyrical melody of striking beauty over strings that imitate the movement of a clock.

Though the ensemble horns seemed often over-parted, the performance was also memorable for the precision and impeccable articulation of the orchestra’s strings. Their collective sonority is richer than period-piece ensembles, which enables us to better appreciate the dramatic power of such movements as the “Entracte, Suite des vents”. But in Labadie’s reading, this string richness occasionally obscured Rameau’s sophisticated and sensual harmonic underpinning, as in the pas de deux. The range of orchestral colours and contrasts exhibited were impressive but Labadie’s penchant for rhythmic drive occasionally fudged orchestral balance and layered textures. Despite the fact that one would have appreciated a little more French-perfumed elegance and sheer charm, this was a performance of total devotion and conviction.

After the interval, Labadie turned to Gluck with three excerpts from his groundbreaking and epoch-forming ‘reform’ opera of 1762, Orfeo ed Eurydice. In this opera Gluck, who is often perceived as more historically significant than musically inspired, sought to banish the excesses of Italian baroque opera and return to the dramatic fusion of words and music that had originally inspired the members of the Camerata Fiorentina. Unfortunately the performance of both the Ballo sections as well as the celebrated “Dance of the blessed spirits” (from the 1774 revision) from Orfeo ed Eurydice suffered from a limp and wooden approach and unfocused, lacklustre playing.       

Things improved immeasurably with a performance of Gluck’s 1761 ballet, Don Juan. To give the admittedly piecemeal work a more dramatic framework and a certain lucidity, an actor (the fine Renaud Paradis) provided brief narrative remarks (closely based on Gluck’s stage indications). Paradoxically, though helpful and apropos, the spoken remarks emphasized the episodic nature of the piece which nevertheless benefitted from playing of sculptured and polished assurance. The opening Sinfonia was lit up by lightning strikes of string sonority while the Andante was hugely evocative of Don Juan’s Spain with melting string pizzicati. Labadie’s somewhat academic reading culminated with an incendiary final Allegro as the strings plunged headlong into the fires of hell and took both Don Juan and the appreciative public with them. In an interpretation that underlined the grandiloquent at the expense of human warmth and engagement, Labadie nevertheless reminded us what a supremely proficient and effective ensemble he has fashioned, one whose musical flexibility and technical brilliance are, like the works on the evening’s program, an awe-inspiring spectacle to behold.