I can’t say I can ever remember attending a concert or opera conducted by American-born music director and renowned Baroque researcher William Christie that I haven’t enjoyed. And Christie’s rendition of four of Handel’s works in the Salle Pleyel last week was especially enjoyable. Christie named this concert “Music for Queen Caroline”, a moving tribute to Handel’s friend, protector and patron, Queen Caroline of Great Britain (1683–1737).

Emmanuelle de Negri © ’bdallah Lasri
Emmanuelle de Negri
© ’bdallah Lasri

A native German, just like Handel, Queen Caroline was the wife of King George II, and in her own right a highly influential patron of the arts as well as an amateur musician much appreciated by intellectuals of the time. She even earned praise from Voltaire, who wrote that she “was born to encourage all the artists and to be good to the people: she is a lovable philosopher on the throne: she never misses the opportunity to teach or to be generous.”

Maestro Christie chose to start the concert with The Ways of Zion do Mourn, HWV 264, a funeral anthem which was performed for the first time in 1737 during Caroline’ funeral ceremony at Westminster Abbey. But instead of using the huge choir of 80 vocalists and over 100 instrumentalists that Handel originally envisaged, Christie preferred to place two small choirs, each of a dozen singers, in front of the orchestra, and signed off with his other specialty, making the string section play their instruments standing up.

The performance of this solemn, melancholic anthem from Christie and Les Arts Florissants perfectly displayed the sophistication called for in Handel’s score. The harmony and sonority of the two small choirs was unusually clear, and despite the less than perfect acoustics offered by the Salle Pleyel, the voices of each vocalist in the choir sounded out like a powerful soloist in their own right.

But the highlight of the evening was the second half of the concert: soprano Emmanuelle de Negri showed us how one of the most sensual of Handel’s solo motets should sound. With her warm timbre, subtle legatos and clear diction, she underlined the passionate nuances of the rarely performed solo vocal masterpiece Silete venti. In contrast with the melancholic first half of the concert, here Handel’s incomparable thrill and energy were expressed in one voice: de Negri gave us a soloist’s ardent prayer which culminated in her thrilling aria “Dulcis amor, Jesu care”, a real gem.

And the audience couldn’t stay indifferent to her unique ability to express Handel’s crescendo of sincerity and scintillating musical grace and harmony – the soprano was rewarded at the end with deservedly warm applause.

Les Arts Florissants, the orchestra with which Christie has worked for more than 30 years, had one more opportunity to demonstrate the splendor of Baroque instrumental harmony with a work composed two years after Queen Caroline’s death: the Concerto Grosso Op. 6 no. 6 was the perfect piece to follow. A peaceful and gracefully meditative contemplation of the first Largo affettuoso movement brought us to the perky and bright final Allegro.

The eclectic program in Salle Pleyel ended with the choral fireworks of The King Shall Rejoyce, one of the four coronation anthems that Handel wrote for George and Caroline in 1727. It was Handel’s first work as a freshly naturalized English citizen: he was, as were England’s new king and queen, the very incarnation and synthesis of the European spirit – a German-born intellectual educated in Italy and France, and now living in England.

The concert ended triumphantly with the best-known coronation anthem, Zadok the Priest, played as an encore, which was followed by huge applause and loud bravos.

Easily recognizable today to every British citizen, Zadok the Priest was meant to idealise and glorify the Handel's new homeland and its royal court. As it has been played since then at every coronation ceremony in England, it became one of the most popular pieces in the history of music – but also a huge challenge for performers in modern concert venues. Maestro Christie and Les Arts Florissants, however, show us how to express the grandeur of this music without slipping into patriotic glitz. They concluded concert with the best part of Handelian enthusiasm from Zadok, and it was in perfect coherence with the previous parts of the program. The audience was under the spell of Christie’s magic one more time.