The Canadian chamber orchestra Les Violons du Roy, using Baroque bows on metal strings at modern pitch, came to Walt Disney Concert Hall, backing Alexandre Tharaud on a big beautiful Steinway in three Bach concertos and playing the first of Handel’s three Water Music themselves and several small Bach arrangements besides. The audience was small, but the Hall sounded good..

Bernard Labadie and Les Violons du Roy © Camirand Photo
Bernard Labadie and Les Violons du Roy
© Camirand Photo

Conductor and founder Bernard Labadie’s band of 19 strings, 5 winds and harpsichord played it sumptuous in terms of tone and mostly straight interpretively, like a modern-day, authenticized I Musici, with delicious ornaments from the woodwinds but otherwise in short supply. By contrast, Tharaud used ornaments liberally, like jewelry, first to adorn the music at vulnerable places, and then serve as moments of entry to the music’s deeper places. With Les Violons phrasing exquisitely and turning on a dime when necessary for that improvisatory quality, Tharaud’s performance of the great D minor Concerto rivaled classic recordings by Edwin Fischer in 1933 and Sviatoslav Richter in 1954 for the enormity of risk and the exhilaration of execution.

Tharaud’s comprehensive embrace of free movement laid on Labadie’s arcs of clear, relentless structure, provoked his initially sultry sense of direction to come alive, seemingly spontaneously from within, as if he were a classical music pianist’s equivalent of a 1950s method actor. It was in synch with his having participated in EMI's original Fifty Shades Of Grey: The Classical Album in 2012, after recording five Bach concertos with Labadie and Les Violons the year before.

Labadie had opened the evening with his arrangement of the unassuming Gravement from Bach’s Fantasia in G major, before energizing the audience with the Water Music Suite no. 1 in F major, playing seamlessly and moving instantaneously, with the concertmaster at times playing solo as if it were formally a concerto grosso; in fact, it looked as if bowings across the five string sections had been meticulously tweaked to maximize flow and create pulse. The oboes ornamented delightfully now and then, and the French horns were wonderfully golden and, for once, not cracking faux at the top.

After beginning the second half with an apologia for arrangements in general and a brief historical explanation of why they are legitimate, Labadie demonstrated his point with his recently-finished arrangement of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 58. It was relatively quiet and feline – “nothing like the Stokowski,” as Labadie said.

In an interview a few days before the concert, the first of a nine-day, six-city North American tour (Los Angeles, Wheaton, West Lafayette, Goshen, Winnipeg and Calgary), Labadie had told me that “the time of hippies smoking pot and playing Baroque violin and viola da gamba vs penguin-suited symphony orchestra musicians vibrating every sixteenth in a Mozart symphony is long gone.” Point proved at Disney Hall.

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