Two specially assembled suites from operas by Rameau opened this concert from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and William Christie at the Royal Festival Hall. Christie’s instinctive understanding of this music’s dramatic qualities is unquestionable, but all too often by emphasising important gestures he distorted the overall picture; thrilling bass runs became a jumbled mess whilst plangent suspensions were emphasised to the point of bulging with the resolution often hardly sounded. In “Sommeil” from Dardanus, gut strings yielded a rich and varied palette of colours to bear, though much of this magic was undone by phrasing which, by constantly cutting notes on weak beats short, robbed the music of its feel. Elsewhere, the performers’ nervous energy was not always contained, with several scrappy starts. In the excerpts from Castor and Pollux the wind doubled the violins exquisitely, adding colour and depth behind the sound. Their own solo contributions, however, were underpowered.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment © Richard Haughton
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
© Richard Haughton

“Underpowered” is not a word you could use to describe Christie’s take on Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. In its best moments this raucous romp delighted, particularly the brass, though occasionally balance and other subtleties suffered. Christie’s grasp of grand gesture certainly suited the opening of the Handel Concerto Grosso, Op. 6 no. 6. Here, sweeping forte statements gave way to music of vulnerability in which every suspension registered. Contrasts were also made vivid in the Musette, where a warm and generous ripeno complemented the airier tone of the soloists though the interplay between these groups became ponderous – a bar-by-bar to-ing and fro-ing which compromised the music’s direction and flow. The concerto’s angular fugue was taken at a real lick – which added further drama (and a little danger) to the mix. Again, Christie latched on to the music’s most dramatic features, like the rousing bass entries, but many subsidiary details were lost. Kati Debretzeni, the OAE’s leader, was at her most convincing in the fourth movement where she brought clarity and purpose to the frantic passagework and a good sense of line to the more melodic passages.

If Christie’s pyrotechnics occasionally misfired, the vocal fireworks of soprano Sandrine Piau were a different story. It only took her the first note of “Tristes apprêts, pâles flambeaux” from Castor et Pollux to communicate its intense grief, whilst in “Je vole, amour” from Les Paladins her effortless, soaring filigrees made the accompanying flutes seem earthbound in comparison. “Se pietà” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare featured expressive contributions from bassoonist Andrew Watts but the wooden violin ritornellos failed to match the level of Piau’s sensitivity. Sometimes, however, the decorations became too much, diminishing rather than accentuating the melodic lines and causing the da capo to peak too early. “Scoglio d’immota fronte” from Scipione contained daring vocal acrobatics but whilst the strings imbued aria’s heart with calm when it came to personifying the raging tempest they lacked incisive drive, leaving Piau to do most of the work herself.

Finally, the audience was spoiled with, not one, but four encores. In addition to more fireworks and a second, even more energetic, account of ‘Règne avec moi, Bacchus’ from Rameau’s Anacréon Piau and Christie chose two further Handel arias. It was bliss to hear the violins echo Piau’s long floated lines in Tornami a vagheggiar from Alcina whilst the statement which opens the aria’s second section - ‘already I gave you my heart’ – was almost unbearably frank and confessional. In Lascia ch’io pianga from Rinaldo the pregnant silences between phrases spoke almost as loudly as the notes themselves. The Royal Festival Hall is far from an intimate venue, though in the da Capo Piau managed to make it feel like one; her liberal – but never ostentatious – ornamentation together with the intensity of emotion conveyed was breathtaking. Combined with the OAE’s most sensitive playing of the evening, this performance ensured that the concert ended, not just with fireworks, but with plenty of tears too.

****1