“We call you to witness that if our voices work wonders, our lutes, too, please both heart and ear”. These lines, taken from the translation of the first piece in tonight’s programme, summed up, for me, the evening. Not only did Le Poème Harmonique provide us with some truly magical singing, the instrumental group provided balance, entertainment and fun throughout. Directed by Vincent Dumestre, Le Poème Harmonique is a group of vocal and instrumental soloists who specialise in the diverse repertoire of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Alongside their recital programmes, they add actors, dancers, circus artists and puppeteers to their ranks for larger scale productions, and this stage experience shone through in this evening’s concert. The programme was an eclectic mix of songs and instrumental works by Etienne Moulinié and Charles Tessier, taken from these composers’ anthologies of songs written in the early part of the 17th century. The air de cour form is sometimes compared with the English lute song, taking its subject matter from all areas of life: politics, art, history, philosophy, love and social customs, often erring on the satirical.

Le Poème Harmonique © Guy Vivien
Le Poème Harmonique
© Guy Vivien

The concert opened with the concluding piece in Molinié’s Book II, the wonderfully simple Concert de différents Oyseaux. The opening soprano solo was haunting, gracefully phrased and ornamented by Claire Lefilliâtre. The verses alternated solo and quartet texture, which were juxtaposed with instrumental interludes, the solo line taken by recorder and flute player Pierre Hamon. The perfect balance between singers and instrumentalists was immediately striking, with crystal clear diction and wonderfully articulated embellishments ensuring that that every nuance of the text was understood. The group has a particular interest in getting “back to the basics” of early French and Italian music by exploring its relationship with traditional folk music and this was particularly apparent in this opening piece. The melodic content and decoration played heavily on the folk timbres of the music, which provided a fresh and surprisingly contemporary feel to the whole programme.

This modern feel was again apparent in the first of Charles Tessier’s pieces, Je suis par trop longtemps pucelle, which has a restless, rhythmically unstable feel, perfectly suited to the raunchy text. In fact, all the Tessier seen in tonight’s programme were slightly risqué, with playful digs at German and Italian language and exotic “Turkish” songs, bringing a stylised oriental feel to the close of the concert. The acting skill of the singers really shone in Mattone mie care, which plays on the linguistic macaroni of the cantons. Arnaud Marzorati provided us with some beautifully comedic vocal colour and shaping of the lines as he took the lead in the tongue-twisting text.

The instrumental group, led by Dumestre, also had some star moments – Moulinié included several instrumental works in his books of songs and we were treated to a few tonight. The viol consort was joined by lute (Dumestre), flutes and recorder (Hamon) and a variety of percussion (Joël Grare), which were all on show in the tongue-in-cheek dance suite Entrées instrumentals du Ballet du Mariage de Pierre de Provence avec la belle Maguelonne. Each movement was theatrically announced by Mazorati and the lilt and variety of the dance numbers illustrated the action wonderfully, from the “Pavane ridicule” to the “Combat à chevals” – complete with horse hooves!

Tonight’s concert was a technical and musical masterpiece – a beautifully balanced and diverse programme performed with grace and ease, which was a pleasure to behold. The group thoroughly deserved their two encores; in which, incidentally, they surprised us all by taking up their viols as if they were guitars and singing a modern jazz arrangement as if it were written for period instruments all along. What a treat!