Marc Minkowski / Les Musiciens du Louvre
Handel / Mozart

Victoria Hall, Geneva, 2018-12-13

4.5-star rating

2018-12-19 — Original posting


Victoria Hall, Geneva, 2018-12-13 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Victoria Hall, Geneva, 2018-12-13 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Introduction

Every year, the foundation Migros Kulturprozent Classics. organizes a series of concerts in Geneva, Lucerne, and Zurich. Most of those are performed in two of the locations, but occasionally, they are singular events in Switzerland, like this one in Geneva, featuring Marc Minkowski. As I live near Zurich, I rarely attend performances in Geneva’s Victoria Hall, as these usually require staying overnight. Nevertheless I could not resist the opportunity of attending this concert, featuring artists that seldom perform in our part of Switzerland. And—as expected—this was very well worth the extra effort!


Marc Minkowski (© Marco Borggreve)
Marc Minkowski (© Marco Borggreve)

Program

The program for this concert consisted of works by Mozart exclusively—or almost:

“Almost”, because the first one is Mozart’s arrangement / re-instrumentation of a work by Handel. And Mozart never completed the second one, the famous “Great Mass” (Missa solemnis) in C minor. For a half-way “usable” (though still incomplete) performance, one needs to resort to completions / reconstructions of several movements by others / “third parties”. So, both parts of the program had “non-Mozart ingredients”.


Artists

There were several main attractions in this concert:

  • the program, naturally—but those works one can also hear from recordings or in other concerts;
  • more importantly: the artists who rarely make their way to the Zurich area, and which I knew would be delivering a fantastic, truly historically informed performance;
  • finally, of course, also the venue, in all its glory.

First, let me present the musicians:

Marc Minkowski, Les Musiciens du Louvre

The central person throughout the performance was the French conductor Marc Minkowski (see also Wikipedia) and his orchestra, Les Musiciens du Louvre. Minkowski, born 1962 in Paris, to an American mother and a Polish-French professor of pediatrics, started his musical career as bassoonist in baroque ensembles / formations.

In 1982, at age 20 already, Marc Minkowski formed his current orchestra, Les Musiciens du Louvre, an orchestra initially aiming to perform and promote French baroque music. In 1996, the orchestra relocated to Grenoble. It has since also enlarged its repertoire, especially into opera, and most prominently to works by George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791), Gaetano Donizetti (1797 – 1848), Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714 – 1787), and Jacques Offenbach (1819 – 1880).

Configuration

In this concert, according to the booklet, the orchestra performed in the following configuration:

  • 8 + 6 violins (in “antiphonal” arrangement, i.e., second violins on the right), 4 violas, 3 cellos, 2 double basses. Most string instruments (as far as I could see) were modern (long fingerboard, longer and steeper neck). One exception (at least) was a baroque cello used as continuo instrument with parts of the Handel/Mozart cantata, see below. Most bows were modern (Tourte bows), too—however, played in baroque manner, i.e., the musicians did not hold the bow at the frog, but more towards the center, as with baroque and early classical bows.
  • 2 traversos (wooden transverse flutes)
  • oboes (2)
  • clarinets (2)
  • bassoons (2)
  • natural horns (2)
  • baroque (natural) trumpets (2)
  • baroque trombones (3)
  • timpani
  • chest organ & fortepiano
  • glass harmonica (see below)
  • theorbo

I did wonder about the bows—however, in the end, the type of bow is not that important, but rather, how the bow is used. In other words: modern bows very well permit articulating in proper baroque or classical manner. The primary benefit of baroque or classical bows is that it prevents “bad habits” that the modern bow may lead to, such as excessive legato playing, or—worse—”Nachdrücken“. Needless to say that none of these were observable here.

Singers, “Choir”

The vocal part consisted of a set of soloists, plus a number of ripieno singers. All of these are professional singers, either already with an active career in opera and concert, or at the end of their education / the beginning of a career as professional singers.

Soloists

Ripieno Singers

  • Constance Malta-Bey, soprano
  • Léa Frouté, soprano
  • Sophie Garbisu, soprano
  • Marie-Andrée Bouchard-Lesieur, alto
  • Owen Willetts, countertenor (actually listed as soloist, but part of the ripieno in this concert)
  • François Pardailhé, tenor
  • Antoine Foulon, bass
  • plus one tenor and one bass, not listed in the booklet.

Whenever soloists were not singing a solo part, they moved back into the ripieno, both increasing the choir (to 4 + 3 + 3 + 3 singers total), as well as enabling the choir to split into a ripieno choir + solo quartet, or into a double choir.

Setting, etc.

The ripieno (choir), as well as the soloists performed in two rows, behind the strings. Brass instruments and continuo were located in the rear corners (trumpets on the left, continuo on the right, horns further to the right) and behind the singers (trombones). For solos, singers stepped forward, to perform next to Marc Minkowski.

The concert was very well-sold. My wife and I had seats in the second row (central part) of the first right-hand side gallery. On these seats, the acoustics were excellent, though we could not see the continuo, the horns, and the glass harmonica “in action”. Therefore, for our seating position, these sections also were acoustically slightly underrepresented.


Handel / Mozart: Ode for St.Cecilia’s Day

The diplomat, librarian, amateur musician and patron Baron Gottfried van Swieten (1733 – 1803) must have been a fan of Handel’s music. He commissioned Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) to adapt several of Handel’s choral / vocal works for the needs of the late 18th century. The works by Handel which Mozart arranged include

The “Ode for St.Cecilia’s Day”, HWV 76 is a festive cantata that George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759) composed in 1739. The text for the cantata is from a poem that John Dryden (1631 – 1700) wrote in 1687Saint Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians.

Mozart’s version of the Ode, K.592, apparently never saw a performance during the composer’s lifetime—first records of a performance (according to the concert handout) point to 1793, two years after Mozart’s death. And it took until 1883 for the arrangement to appear in print. That score includes the text in German, and the addition of a second flute, the clarinets, and the horns. At the same time, Mozart eliminated the clarin (piccolo) trumpets.

Structure

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s arrangement consists of nine “numbers”:

  1. Overtura (Larghetto e staccato—allegro—minuet) —
    Durch Harmonie (“From harmony, from heavenly harmony”, recitative, tenor)
  2. Natur lag unter einer Last (“When nature, underneath a heap”, recitativo accompagnatotenor) —
    Durch Harmonie (“From harmony, from heavenly harmony”, chorus)
  3. Leidenschaften stillt und weckt Musik (“What passion cannot music raise, and quell?”, ariasoprano)
  4. Trompete, dein Schmettern erweckt uns zum Streit (“The trumpet’s loud clangour excites us to arms”, ariatenor) —
    Trompete, dein Schmettern erweckt uns zum Streit (“The trumpet’s loud clangour excites us to arms”, chorus)
  5. Marcia
  6. Der Flöte Klageton (“The soft complaining flute”, ariasoprano)
  7. Scharf klingt der Geigenton (“Sharp violins proclaim”, ariatenor)
  8. Doch oh! wer preiset ganz (“But oh! what art can teach”, ariasoprano)
  9. Orpheus gewann ein wildes Volk (“Orpheus could lead the savage race”, ariabass)
  10. Doch du, Caecilia (“But bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher”, recitativo accompagnato, tenor) —
    Wie durch die Macht des heil’gen Sang’s (“As from the power of sacred lays”, chorus) —
    Was tot ist lebt (“The dead shall live, the living die”, chorus)

The Performance

The overture offered an excellent opportunity to enjoy the qualities of the orchestra (before the singers would distract the listener’s attention!). And indeed, it was instantly clear to me why Marc Minkowski recently, in a radio interview, called this “the world’s best baroque orchestra”: in terms of articulation, precision (where required), clarity, coordination, intonation, sound—simply: musicality—the orchestra left absolutely nothing to wish for! Sure, on very rare occasions, one of the period trumpets of trombones might have responded late—but that’s just how these instruments work.

Overtura —

The opening—albeit written by a German living in England—is a typical French overture, with a festive, punctuated beginning. The annotation here is Larghetto e staccato, i.e., it is not too slow, not the usual Grave. Marc Minkowski took an almost fluent pace, which put the emphasis on the stepping beats. This turned the semiquaver and demisemiquaver upbeats into acciaccaturas, into means to picking up momentum for the fluent swaying of the main beats. The subsequent fugato (Allegro) gave a first impression about the extraordinary clarity of the strings, their lightness in articulation, while retaining a “grippy” sound / character: an excellent start!

Handel used the overture also as part (movements 1 & 2) of his Concerto grosso in D major, op.6/5, HWV 323. Mozart’s score—and many, if not most performances today—has this followed by the last movement (#6) of that Concerto grosso, a Minuet, annotated Un poco larghetto. With its festive, brilliant trumpets and the timpani, this was indeed fitting very well! In the edition of the Handel Society, Handel’s score instead features a much shorter version of that Minuet, which allegedly was originally intended for the cantata. I’m glad that Mozart stuck with the extended, more festive version!

Durch Harmonie — I. Natur lag unter einer Last — Durch Harmonie

I liked the subtle accompaniment by theorbo and fortepiano in this recitativo secco! However, the key experience here was Stanislas de Barbeyrac‘s tenor voice: a beautiful timbre with “substance”, plenty of “ping”, volume and character (approaching that of a high baritone), excellent projection, diction and clarity—simply wonderful: at least so far one of the best tenor voices that I have heard in concert, in a long time!

The chorus “Durch Harmonie” surprised with a very fresh tempo, full of drive and momentum, and of course very light in the articulation—though never even a bit academic or dry. The choir with its 3 + 4 + 3 + 3 professional voices—as expected—provided ultimate clarity in articulation, diction, and voice / dynamic control. Sure, it could not offer the power and ultimate homogeneity of a huge choir. However, in this setting, these are dispensable, unnecessary—and actually more than compensated for by the extra clarity, character, . flexibility, virtuosity, and the much stronger, more direct expression.

II. Leidenschaften stillt und weckt Musik

The aria “Leidenschaften stillt…” features a simple, but truly beautiful accompaniment by solo cello and continuo: the music alone is so intimate and touching. However, here, it was performed on a baroque cello (with baroque bow)—had I not watched the instrument, I would have sworn it was a viola da gamba, as the sound was so gentle, mellow, slightly nasal, and so fitting! A bassoon complemented the cello (forming a beautiful duet), later two traversos.

The tutti then set in, and we heard the soprano Constance Malta-Bey in her first aria. Volume and projection of her voice are very good, she had a full timbre, warm, mellow, expressive. For my taste, though, the character of her voice was a little too dramatic (enough vibrato, to say the least). I would have preferred a simpler, more lyrical voice—one that better fitted the solo cello. The latter of course played without vibrato.

III. Trompete, dein Schmettern erweckt uns zum Streit — Marcia

Here, Stanislas de Barbeyrac could demonstrate the dramatic power of his voice, flexibility and coloraturas—excellent. The only limitation: at the bottom of its range (baritone register), his voice had limited projection: some low tones almost seemed to be missing. Luckily, there very few such instances in this aria. The choir demonstrated stunning homogeneity and power.

V. Der Flöte Klageton

Besides the tutti violins, this aria featured a wonderfully intimate, baroque setting with solo traverso, and theorbo in the continuo. Marc Minkowski sat down for this aria, leaving the stage to the soprano and the instrumentalists. Of course, he kept the control at all times. I could not resist smiling when I realized that he has the habit of “conducting” trills by wagging his middle fingers…

VI. Scharf klingt der Geigenton

The “Sharp violins” in this Allegro tenor aria were the tutti violins, with firm, clear articulation (at a fairly challenging tempo). Again, the tenor could demonstrate his dramatic abilities and virtuosity in coloraturas. And again: this beautiful, brilliant timbre / “ping”!

There was a little, unintentional intermission here, due to a cell phone ringing for quite a while in the back of the hall. Luckily, Marc Minkowski patiently waited (“allô?“) for this to end—it would have been the worst time for the phone to interfere with the music!

VII. Doch oh! wer preiset ganz

The following soprano aria (Larghetto, e mezzo piano) was truly special. The score asks for an organ—and here now, Minkowski mad use of the glass harmonica. What an ethereal, solemn atmosphere this created! Sounds like from an Aeolian harp, from a world beyond—enchanting! Ana Maria Labin proved that she can produce ethereal sounds, too. Here, her voice matched the character of the music far better. She did have a few limitations, though, in a messa di voce, her pitch control occasionally had weaknesses.

Glass harmonica, Victoria Hall, Geneva, 2018-12-13 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Glass harmonica, Victoria Hall, Geneva, 2018-12-13 (© Rolf Kyburz)

VIII. Orpheus gewann ein wildes Volk

The bass aria (Alla Hornpipe) was very resolute. Norman D. Patzke demonstrated good volume, flexibility in coloraturas. His timbre appeared somewhat covered and mellow. Especially in coloraturas, though, his pitch was sometimes unclear. Occasionally, I heard him singing, but could at best guess the notes he meant to perform. Strangely, this short aria is the only role for the bass soloist.

IX. Doch Du, Caecilia — Wie durch die Macht des heil’gen Sang’s — Was tot ist lebt

The tenor recitative (accompagnato) is very lyrical, with an “angelical” moment when the melody rises to A’, while retracting to pp: Stanislas de Barbeyrac switched to sotto voce in the high register, then smoothly returning back to his normal voice for the closure: the high art of singing!

On the part of the solo soprano, the following Grave (chorus + soprano) left a few wishes open. The solo is meant to be a firm / affirmative statement. It is challenging, as the solo is really alone, without support. Ana Maria Labin sang with firmness, but a bit too dramatic—to the point where the vibrato affected the intonation. And nobody could help her in this!

In the concluding fugue, Minkowski chose the ideal tempo: measured, fast enough, but also not too fast, such that the choir could play out the power, the strength in their voices, the flexibility in coloraturas, while retaining the necessary transparency: an impressive piece, indeed! I particularly enjoyed that unlike in many “modern” performances, the (baroque) trumpets never were overwhelmingly dominant (if not oppressing), but mainly added the necessary color. Except of course in fanfare passages, where they convincingly demonstrated that they have power and brilliance, too!


Mozart: Great Mass in C minor, K.427 (417a)

The second part of the program was not an arrangement by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791), but mostly “genuine”. It is Mozart’s last musical setting of the mass, the Great Mass (Große Messe) in C minor, K.427 (417a). Mozart composed this in 1782/1783, in Vienna, i.e., when he was no longer a church musician, free of obligations to write masses. Rather, it is the result of a personal vow to write a mass when bringing Constanze to his home town, as his wife. A partial performance took place in Salzburg in 1783, with Kyrie, Gloria, and Sanctus, with Constanze singing the “Et incarnatus est“.

Unfortunately, the work remained incomplete: most of the Credo and all of the Agnus Dei are missing. Even the Sanctus is incomplete. This performance used the reconstructed and completed version by Helmut Eder (1916 – 2005), published by Bärenreiter, 1987. Eder’s reconstruction mostly concerns the instrumentation and choral segments in the surviving parts of the Credo and the Sanctus, omitting all attempts to use completions of missing parts based on fragmentary sketches, etc. The structure of the version in this performance is as follows:

  1. Kyrie (Andante moderato: Chorus and Soprano)
  2. Gloria
    1. Gloria in excelsis Deo (Allegro vivace: Chorus)
    2. Laudamus te (Allegro aperto: Soprano II)
    3. Gratias agimus tibi (Adagio: Chorus)
    4. Domine Deus (Allegro moderato: Sopranos I and II)
    5. Qui tollis (Largo: Double choir)
    6. Quoniam tu solus (Allegro: Sopranos I and II, Tenor)
    7. Jesu Christe (Adagio: Chorus) – Cum Sancto Spiritu (Chorus)
  3. Credo
    1. Credo in unum Deum (Allegro maestoso: Chorus)
    2. Et incarnatus est (Andante: Soprano I)
  4. Sanctus (Largo: Double choir)
  5. Benedictus (Allegro comodo: Quartet and Double chorus)

The Performance

In the introduction to the concert, at the very beginning, Marc Minkowski talked about the uncertainties about the origins of the Mass in C minor, a work that apparently combines material that Mozart had composed over much of his life. Minkowski pointed out that there is no doubt that for the mass, Mozart was thinking of a big, philharmonic choir singing on the organ balcony in Salzburg’s St.Peter’s Abbey. However, he also sees intimate aspects in this mass, and in order to focus on these, he decided to perform the work with “only a handful (une poignée)” of instrumentalists and equally une poignée of singers—professional ones, though.

I. Kyrie

Light articulation, a dark(er) sound in the orchestra, but retaining the same light, clear articulation as in the cantata; fluent, not overly heavy, yet earnest enough for this intense plea for mercy. Again, violins with “character” (luckily not the silky smoothness of large, traditional, top-class symphony orchestras!). And the choir sound as good as it can be—and as good as expected with such a professional ensemble.

In the “Christe eleison”, as also later in the mass, Mozart showed no mercy with the soloist: there is no doubt that Mozart wrote for the best voices of his time! Here’ it’s not virtuosic coloraturas that form the challenge, but the requirement to control voice and dynamics smoothly over a very large range, from brilliant heights down to an alto range, where a voice often sounds almost like spoken. And there are jumps of more than an octave. Ana Maria Labin’s voice proved to be a much better fit in this music. She has the necessary volume and range, even the low A projected well: congrats!

II. Gloria

Gloria in excelsis Deo“: excellent choir, perfect balance & color, harmonious, virtuosic, astounding volume—never overpowering, but in excellent balance / relation to the orchestra!

Laudamus te“, with Ambroisine Bré: what a voice! Beautiful timbre, excellent volume and projection, clarity in coloraturas, plenty of reserves over the entire range, amazing messa di voce, so harmonious in dynamics / phrasing and vibrato, and only very few, if any inaccuracies in intonation.

Domine Deus“: here, Ana Maria Labin and Ambroisine Bré were more consistent, more equilibrated as a duo than what I anticipated from the preceding solos. The tempo was a bit on the fast side: this may have helped with the long notes, but was at the limit for both orchestra, as well as for some coloraturas with the singers.

Double “Choir”?

Qui tollis“, for double choir: Marc Minkowski had one “choir” (four voices) sing at the front of the podium, and a second “choir” of the same size (with the altus) further back, on the right. True, balance, power, volume control, intonation, clarity—all were as good as it can be. However, there clearly was no choir sound, and when single voices were singing—one of course heard exactly that: individual singers. Not two choirs, but two vocal quartets. Maybe this was one occasion where more singers might have been desirable?

Quoniam tu solus“, for soprano, mezzo-soprano, and tenor: the trio of soloists was well-balanced. Maybe that Ana Maria Labin was slightly dominating in volume over Ambroisine Bré. The soprano again was sometimes a bit strong in her vibrato, while the mezzo-soprano was calmer and more equilibrated in timbre.

Jesu Christe“: short, but what richness in sound!

Cum Sancto Spiritu“: here was a point where the small, professional choir had a definitive advantage! Clarity and transparency even in dense polyphonic textures were unsurpassed. The clear marking / accents on the whole notes forming the head of the fugue theme made it easy for the listener to follow the structure of the piece. On top of that: the control over dynamics, voicing and expression in this fugue left anything behind that a big (even professional) choir could possibly offer!

III. Credo

Credo in unum Deum“: a fresh tempo, maybe a little fast, at the point where the singers could no longer articulate semiquavers clearly. Yet, such an affirmative statement, the performance full of drive, engagement, expressive!

Et incarnatus est

This part of the Roman Catholic ordinary describes the central mystery of Christian faith. The music captured this with the gentle voices of traverso, (baroque) oboe, and bassoon, the strings accompanied with hesitating, swaying figures. To this, Mozart adds a soprano solo with almost inhuman demands on voice control: ideally all (or mostly) mezza vocep, yet with a richly ornamented melody line, covering an extreme tonal range. And most of this is very exposed, has very little support from the accompaniment.

In my view, this requires the most gentle singing with “virgin purity”. The solo wasn’t always quite immaculate in the intonation. And in the “most mysterious” moments, around the words “virgine” and “homo factus est“, I found it too direct, not gentle enough. Also, the duets with oboe, traverso, or bassoon, were not always equilibrated: I think this requires a “purer” voice with less (if any) vibrato, and utmost diligence in adjusting to the different wind solos (especially in the cadenza). But as stated: Mozart’s demands are inhuman!

IV. Sanctus — Osanna — V. Benedictus

The glorification of God in the Sanctus and the Osanna is maybe another point where a bigger choir might have been slightly preferable? That’s far from being a complaint, though—more a matter of preference.

In the Benedictus, the baritone, Norman D. Patzke, had his second appearance as soloist, complementing the other three to form a vocal quartet. His role in the cantata may have been too short to comment on his vocal qualities—here, I must say, his voice was impressive. That part seems well-adapted for a baritone voice. The vocal quartet was very balanced, and thanks to the small orchestra and its light articulation, the soundscape remained transparent at all times.

One can “feel” the fact that the mass is incomplete—most obviously at the end of the Benedictus, which does not offer a truly affirmative or conclusive ending. This is mitigated somewhat by re-uniting solos and ripieno singers to the full choir, and re-engaging the full orchestra for the last 14 bars, as in this performance. The score does not mention tutti, it only specifies f. In this performance, though, this was musically more than satisfactory, and the performance as a whole was a most impressive, moving experience!


Conclusions

Just a short note on choir size(s): in an exemplary way, in this performance, Marc Minkowski demonstrated the advantage of a small, professional choir ensemble: perfect sound control, balance, flexibility, transparency, clarity. And the ability to create a more intimate atmosphere, to reach out to the listener much more directly.

It also demonstrated the few weaknesses of that approach. Besides possible limitations in big venues (not a problem at all in this concert), there is a certain loss of homogeneity within a voice of 2 – 3 singers. Plus, definitely, one loses the traditional “choir soundscape”. Especially—obviously—if the “choir” is merely a vocal quartet. Also this was rarely a problem here: none of this music is like the famous chorus of the Hebrew slaves in Verdi’s “Nabucco” , or the like, and none of this requires overwhelming strength and power into the remotest corner of the auditorium.

Ratings

Do my remarks seem exceedingly critical? Well, for one, let’s keep in mind that this is criticism at a very, very high level. Also, a performance as multifaceted as this one (or any opera, oratorio, or full mass setting) can never be perfect throughout—artists and listeners are all human, after all. Not machines, luckily!

Then: even though I may listen to a live performance with scrutiny, “with a magnifying glass”, I can still thoroughly enjoy a concert—and I definitely did so here, from beginning to end! In looking at the ratings below: note that ★★★ already covers anything from “passable / reasonable” to “very good”, ★★★★ means “outstanding”, and ★★★★★ means a “performance of a century” that I could re-listen to on end…

  • Les Musiciens du Louvre / Marc Minkowski: ★★★★★
  • Ripieno / Choir (includes the singers below): ★★★★½
  • Ana Maria Labin, soprano: ★★★½
  • Ambroisine Bré, mezzo-soprano: ★★★★
  • Stanislas de Barbeyrac, tenor: ★★★★½
  • Norman D. Patzke, baritone: (★★★½ –) ★★★★
  • Venue / Acoustics: ★★★★


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