This year marks the 250th anniversary of Rameau’s death, and Tuesday’s late-night Prom, performed by Les Arts Florissants under the conductorship of William Christie, perhaps the single figure who has done the most to promote Rameau’s output over the last 30 years, was a fitting tribute to this master of the French Baroque. The works on the programme were the three Grands Motets, composed between 1713-1715; they are precursors of the tragedies lyriques and the grands ballets that followed, however they very much foreshadow these later works: the harmonic language is rich and there is a flair for pacing and the dramatic that is uncommon in this form of Baroque music where many similar works can come across as overly pompous. However the range of musical language was immensely varied, even in these three contemporaneous pieces, the more furious, angst-ridden Deus noster refugium juxtaposed with the pastoral feel of Quam dilecta tabernacula.

Reinoud Van Mechelen, William Christie and Les Arts Florissants © Chris Christodoulou
Reinoud Van Mechelen, William Christie and Les Arts Florissants
© Chris Christodoulou

What is particularly charming about these pieces is the frequent use of soloists in varying ensembles which include a trio for soprano, baritone and bass,and an exceptionally-demanding quartet for four male voices (two tenors, baritone and bass). The sextet of young soloists were all alumni of Christie’s singing school Le Jardin des Voix, and their close ties to conductor and ensemble projected a warm familiarity that emanated from the stage. This is extremely challenging repertoire, brimming with all the intricacy you might expect from this repertoire, however on listening you can’t help but feel that Rameau had gone one step further that his contemporaries in terms of his vocal demands.

All six soloists: Rachel Redmond, Katherine Watson, Reinoud Van Mechelen, Cyril Auvity, Marc Mauillon and Cyril Costanzo deserve a mention for their exemplary performances. Their expert training was on show as not only were the passages dispatched with ease but their performances were infused with the authenticity and style that we have already come to expect from Les Arts Florrissants. However, whilst it was no doubt helpful for them to sing with choir in the choral movements, having the soloists continually walking from the choir to the front of the stage to sing their solo movements was ultimately distracting; there seemed to be no logic in their approach to this either – occasionally there would be a prolonged pause between movements as the soloists set off at the end of the movement, occasionally they were already queuing up before the current movement had ended. This ultimately detracted from the organicism of Rameau’s writing and made it more challenging to hear each Motet as whole.

A far bigger issue was the venue. Every year, due to the nature of the Proms, the Royal Albert Hall is used for repertoire that is often unsuited to its already challenging acoustics and the choir and ensemble had no hopes of filling the space adequately. They made an admirable attempt, their sound rich and their lines clear. After a while my ears became attuned and the projection of sound gradually became more satisfying as though my expectations were subconsciously being revised. However, it is a shame that such instinctive and polished performances of exciting and rarely-programme works were diminished through no fault of the performers. The hall itself was perhaps just over a quarter full at most, and it would have made far more sense to programme the concert at Cadogan Hall, the venue of choice for the Proms Chamber Music series. It is a credit to the performers that the quality and dynamism of the works still shone through, however, I was predominately left hypothesising what this concert could have been if staged in a more appropriate venue.