Le concert d’Astréé in Bach and Händel

Théâtre des Champs Elysés - December 3 2004

Conductor: Emmanuelle Haïm. Veronica Cangemi, soprano. Le Concert d'Astrée.

  • Bach: Suite n° 3 en ré mineur BWV 1068; Cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen BWV 51.
  • Händel: Concerto grosso op. 6 n° 1; Il Delirio Amoroso.

Grazie, obbligato.


If I begin another review with the words “comparisons are odious” I no doubt run the risk of being chased off this blog forever. But at last night’s Bach and Händel concert at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, both the programme and the circumstances invited comparison. The former, by placing Emmannuelle Haïm and her young orchestra squarely in the lineage of Les Arts Florissants and Les Musiciens du Louvre. The latter, because Veronica Cangemi was replacing Natalie Dessay, who has cancelled her engagements for a second operation to her vocal chords.

Well, Le Concert d’Astrée is not Les Arts Florissants. Händel at his most taxingly virtuoso, live, is not Monteverdi in the studio. And Veronica Cangemi is not Natalie Dessay.

It’s a long time since I heard quite such an “unreconstructed” HIP ensemble. The string sound was so feeble that during the opening bars of Bach’s Suite n°3, only the trumpets and timpani were audible, and when the strings and oboes could be heard, the tuning took me back to the darkest days of Jean-Claude Malgloire. The Théâtre des Champs Elysées’ famously dry acoustics were cruel. As were my thoughts: in a small provincial church or a room in a château, maybe; at the Champs Elysées, no. And why attempt something quite so hard as Il Delirio Amoroso? (The answer, presumably, was that it was programmed for Natalie Dessay.) The overall sense of the school concert was not dimmed when, having escorted the soprano on stage, Ms Haïm realised the score was not on the harpsichord and had to go off again to fetch it. Or when the recorder soloist, stepping forward for her moment of glory, plonked her bag on the stage apron and squatted to rummage in it for her instruments, as if for her latch key after a shopping expedition.

Still, the faster ensembles were, on the whole, better than slower, quieter passages, where to make things worse the string desks were pared down to solos. I simply can’t believe that 18th-century instrument makers were not striving for more sound than this – and Les Arts Florissants or, still more, Les Musiciens du Louvre, imply they were. The principal violin had a devil of a job getting her instrument to sound in the ferociously difficult solos in Il Delirio; she did her best, but it wasn’t good enough. It was left to the trumpet, oboe and recorder obbligati to give us some real music-making; the recorder player was particularly plucky.

Veronica Cangemi has a fine, interestingly grainy medium and is so agile as to call to mind Cecilia Bartoli. Unfortunately, like Bartoli – who does it sparingly – or like Anne-Sophie Von Otter – who does it too much – whether aiming for effect or to cover up vocal shortcomings, in high passages she reduces her voice to a strangled whimper. So we never really found out if she was able to sing the top notes in full voice.

Not a great evening, I’m afraid. I spent it gazing at the ceiling lights, remembering the time, before restoration, when one of the huge panels of glass fell and sliced a seat in two, and telling off, in my mind, the metro stations from Alma to République, wondering where I should get off for dinner.

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