Taking the scenic riverside tram route to Müpa (also known as “Palace of Arts”) in Budapest, you cannot but be impressed by the magnificent legacy of the Habsburgs in this beautiful historical city. Yet it was the music of the other powerful European royal dynasty of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Bourbons of France and specifically King Louis XIV, that opened this year’s Budapest Early Music Festival. When the ceremonial orchestral fanfare by the royal composer Jean-Baptiste Lully resounded in the concert hall (with the oboes and bassoons in the balcony), we were instantly transported from this Palace of Arts to the Palace of Versailles.

Le Poème Harmonique © Attila Nagy, Müpa Budapest
Le Poème Harmonique
© Attila Nagy, Müpa Budapest

Müpa Budapest’s Early Music Festival (Régizene Fesztival) was established in 2015, when the theme was Bach and Mendelssohn. This year they have turned their focus to French Baroque music, bookending the festival with two attractive French programmes: a concert of sacred music by Lully and Charpentier and a concert performance of an operatic rarity, Mondonville’s Isbe. Of course the Budapest audience has had an interest in early music for a long time, but there hadn’t been a specialist festival for this genre in the capital for more than ten years and Müpa decided to fill this gap with a five-day festival with four main concerts, smaller-scale concerts as well as pre-concert talks. As far as I could see, the audience was keen and appreciative, and there certainly seems to be an appetite for this music.

The opening night’s programme by Le Poème Harmonique paired two magnificent Te Deum settings by Lully and Marc-Antoine Charpentier. The group, joined by the 30-strong choir Capella Cracoviensis and five fine vocal soloists, was conducted by their dynamic leader Vincent Dumestre. What is interesting about these Te Deum settings is that they were composed for specific occasions of thanksgiving, which gives them genuine emotional depth in addition to the ceremonial grandeur.

Lully originally composed his Te Deum for the baptismal ceremony of his own first son in 1677, and subsequently in 1686, he performed the work to celebrate Louis XIV’s recovery from illness, but unfortunately it was on this occasion that he stabbed his foot with his conducting staff, which led eventually to his death. The text is divided into six movements, and following the style of the French grand motet, each movement consists of contrasting sections of solo voices and chorus – some of it quite operatic and secular in character. Lully also brings out a variety of orchestral colour by different instrumental combination, and his writing for woodwinds is particularly delightful.

Yet undoubtedly the emotional core of this Te Deum is the sombre and poignant fifth movement Dignare domine which begins with a bass solo with continuo, here movingly sang by Benoît Arnould, and followed by the achingly beautiful Miserere by the male trio (Marcel Beekman, Jeffrey Thompson and Arnould), which is then reinforced by the chorus. It creates a touching moment of sombre reflection within this celebratory work. The fact that Dumestre chose this movement as an encore seems to show his fondness for it too.

Charpentier’s Te Deum, performed in the first half, is more compact but an equally magnificent setting. Charpentier divides the text into ten shorter sections and the individual movements have a clearer structure. It is thought to have been composed in the early 1690s, probably in celebration of a French victory at battle (Even if the audience didn’t know the work, they would have recognized the catchy opening March tune as the theme of EBU broadcasts). The work also features some ravishing vocal ensembles such as the male trio in Te per orbern terrarium, the soprano solo with recorder ensemble in Te ergo quaesumus, as well as many joyous choral moments.

Thorughout, Dumestre kept a lively pace while at the same time giving the singers the time and space for their solos. The Capella Cracoviensis were excellent and well-disciplined – although at times they sounded a little uptight and one wished for more expressive flexibility.

Meanwhile the ensemble of Le Poème Harmonique, recreating the unique sonority of the French baroque orchestra, played with elegance and charm. They prefaced the Charpentier with extracts from Michel de Lalande’s orchestral work Caprice de Villers-Cotterêts, and I was particularly impressed by the versatile and eloquent woodwind players who would often switch effortlessly from oboe to recorder or from recorder to bassoon (or “basson” to be more precise).

At the end of the concert, as a second encore, Dumestre lightened the mood by giving us a delicious excerpt from Lully’s first French opera Cadmus et Hermione. It felt like a guilty pleasure after the solemn sacred music, but we were reminded that he was above all a composer of opera.

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