When it comes to French sacred Baroque music, Paul Agnew explained to us, Epiphany is very much the poor relation to the other Christian feasts; compared to the great bodies of music for Advent, Christmas and Easter, far less is available. And so, for the Gstaad New Year Music Festival concert given by Les Arts Florissants last night, which was Epiphany eve, Agnew crafted a specially designed programme of Epiphany music from the 17th century, interleaving movements of masses with motets, composed by Marc-Antoine CharpentierGuillaume-Gabriel Nivers and other French composers of the period.

Paul Agnew and Les Arts Florissants
© Christine Dietzi | Gstaad New Year Music Festival 2022-2023

Anyone with preconceived ideas of Baroque sacred music from other countries would have been well advised to check them into the cloakroom: the sound world of Charpentier and his colleagues is poles apart from the florid decoration of the Italian Baroque. It’s an austere soundscape that eschews the spectacular and strives for purity, encouraging you to meditate to the point of entering a trance-like state. Lauenen church is perhaps the perfect place to hear such music: small enough to be very intimate and with an acoustic that is so dry and clear that you hear every nuance of every note. That puts immense pressure on the artists, and the five singers and seven instrumentalists of a small format Arts Florissants responded superbly.

Both sopranos, Juliette Perret and Ellen Giacone, produced radiant beauty when they shimmered above the texture below. Bass Igor Bouin provided a smooth underpinning at the bottom of that texture; taille (lower tenor) Martin Candela was the strongest of the voices; haute-contre (higher tenor) Sean Clayton filled out the texture between tenor and the sopranos. Whether singing as three male voices only or as the full group – whether a cappella, accompanied by continuo or with the full ensemble – these singers all sang with excellent balance and produced a glorious blended sound throughout. Instrumental balance was also in the top drawer and the sound. 

At the start of the concert, Agnew gave us a brief overview of the material, explaining the significance of the Epiphany as the arrival of the kings and shepherds and the point at which the infant Jesus is first displayed to the world. Following this, to encourage the meditative atmosphere, the whole programme was played through without a break. It was therefore unfortunate that the festival was unable to provide us with the text. French-accented Latin is a very specific thing, and for the first hour of the concert, I found it very difficult to parse unfamiliar Latin text in an unfamiliar accent and understand the meaning in any way other than guessing it from the music’s phrasing and dynamics. Even picking the important moments like the arrival of the kings or Herod’s orders to kill the children required considerable effort. It was also hard to know where one work ended and the next began. With a few exceptions, this was not an audience of specialists in 17th-century sacred music, and I suspect that most will have experienced similar difficulty.

Those problems eased towards the end of the concert. Guillaume Bouzignac’s motet Stella refulget was a real surprise packet, a vivid evocation of the Star of Bethlehem, while Charpentier’s closing Litanies de la Vierge was bookended by the familiar mass texts of Kyrie eleison and Agnus Dei.

In sum, a concert of glorious singing and playing, a true warm bath of meditative sound, but one that I would have enjoyed so much more if I had been able to follow the sung text.

David's stay in Switzerland was funded by Gstaad New Year Music Festival