« Les treize chanteurs de l’Ensemble Correspondances proposent un son équilibré, très sensible à toutes les nuances du texte. » *****
« Although the first concert of the Valletta International Baroque Festival took place last night, tonight’s performance of Grands Motets by Du Mont and Charpentier in St John’s Co-Cathedral felt like a gala opening night. With its wide barrel vault and an uncluttered interior, St John’s avoids many of the problems of acoustics and sightlines that often plague churches as concert venues, and the sumptuous gold-encrusted interior makes an ideal backdrop for grand Baroque music.
The French Ensemble Correspondances, under the direction of Sébastien Daucé, specialises in reintroducing audiences to music by less well-known composers, and this was certainly the first time I’d heard the music of Henry Du Mont, who was originally from Belgium and became director of music at the Chapelle Royale in Versailles. I hope it won’t be the last, because the motets performed this evening were arresting pieces, filled with drama and vitality that held their own alongside motets from the better-known Marc-Antoine Charpentier.
The Grand Motet was distinct style of church music, developed at the Chapelle Royale, and one that made the most of the large forces available to court composers – double chorus, soloists and a large orchestra. Du Mont’s O Mysterium and Super Flumina Babylonis or Charpentier’s In Honorem Sancti Ludovici are as substantial as Bach cantatas, taking the listener through a vividly illustrated narrative. O Mysterium is a meditation on the nature of the Trinity; a dark, subdued opening gave way to a richly textured celebration, in which the chorus throbbed with life, until, like a teacher entering a rowdy classroom, a bass solo commanded them sternly to be quiet and to consider the great mysteries of the Trinity. Daucé’s musicians shifted the mood in an instant. Similarly the psalm setting Super Flumina Babylonis began with sombre but gently flowing music that evoked the river; passionately sad solos and mournful orchestral music were mixed with happier choral passages that recalled the joys of Jerusalem.
The thirteen singers of Ensemble Correspondances had a full and well-blended sound, and were sensitive to every emotional nuance of the texts, although I did sometimes struggle to follow their French Latin pronunciation, and individual lines of counterpoint weren’t always clearly defined. I particularly enjoyed the full-bodied and muscular sound of the three sopranos, both in their chorus singing and their solos. The solos were distributed throughout the whole group, and countertenor David Tricou particularly stood out: a glorious laser-like voice and deeply committed, expressive singing that gripped me from his first notes. O Dulcissima was an unusual text that mixed a prayer to the Virgin in with intensely sensual passages from the Song of Songs, which prompted some wonderfully seductive singing from the soloists. Soprano Violane Le Chenadec skimmed elegantly through the melismas of the passage about flying arrows in Charpentier’s In Honorem and in this bellicose text, I was moved by the humility of the tenor soloist on the passage “O Lord grant that I might fight bravely”.
Each Motet began with an instrumental introduction to set the mood, and the orchestration, much of which had been reconstructed through research by Daucé, did a lot to enhance the texts. (The programme notes gave a very detailed account of Daucé’s work, although I would have liked to have seen something about some of the more obscure texts that Du Mont and Charpentier set. In Honorem was made particularly enjoyable by its orchestral colour, with descant recorders giving the trumpet calls and the whole orchestra fizzing with energy throughout. A second bassoon in O Dulcissima added weight to an already solid bass line.
The Te Deum is a text that is associated with grand state occasions of thanksgiving – victories, treaties, coronations; this evening, the event being marked was the beginning of Malta’s EU presidency, and as the famous opening to Charpentier’s Te Deum is the theme music of the European Broadcasting Union, it was a particularly appropriate choice. Ensemble Correspondances flung themselves into the fanfares with joyful enthusiasm, lifting what was already a really exciting evening of music-making into another dimension; I was particularly struck by Mark Bessonov’s complicated timpani rolls. The Te Deum text shifts between heaven and earth and for all its triumph there are some beautiful contrasting quiet passages. Sopranino recorders and the women’s voices created a lovely timbre for the seraphim and cherubim; the trio of tenor and two sopranos, accompanied by an exquisite violin duet on “Vouchsafe O Lord” and the tranquility of the chorus on “we therefore pray thee” were some of the most moving moments of the evening.
Ensemble Correspondances seemed to draw on extra reserves of energy after a long evening, punching out the massive fugue that ends the Te Deum, to bring the concert to an exhilherating close. »