The programme for Les Talens Lyriques’ Wigmore concert with their founder-director Christophe Rousset consisted of small-scale works, mostly for Advent and Christmas, by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. The pieces were written for liturgical use either for his patron, Marie of Lorraine, Duchess of Guise, or for the Jesuit church of Saint Louis (now Église Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis) in Paris, where Charpentier served as master of music from 1687 to 1698.
In contrast to the exuberance of many of the works we hear at this time of year, this is music of considerable austerity that contemplates the mysteries of Christ’s incarnation and nativity with an almost severe beauty. The scoring is sparse, with the vocal lines assigned to two tenors and a baritone, accompanied by three viols, and organ or harpsichord continuo. However, Charpentier deploys a multiplicity of forms that range from the aphoristic motets of Antiennes O de l’Avent to the miniature oratorio of In Circumcisione Domini, with its dialogue between shepherds and angels. His Magnificat, one of the great settings, is a colossal passacaglia that unfurls hypnotically over its ground bass before finally reaching the hushed Amens that bring it to a close.
This is also music that doesn’t always translate easily to the concert hall, and the devotional mood might have been better sustained if the evening’s two halves had been given as unbroken sequences without pauses for applause. Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques have few equals in this repertory, however, and their performances were immensely persuasive.
Robert Getchell and Fabien Hyon were the tenors, Benoît Arnould the baritone, all singing with wonderful surety, their voices twining exquisitely round each other in the Litanies de la Vierge, which opened the concert, and the awestruck O Salutaris Hostia, which prefaces Antiennes O de l’Avent. The dialogue between angels and shepherds had plenty of vividness and wit, while the Magnificat impressed with its affirmative dignity. The violists, meanwhile, came very much into their own in the series of Noëls pour Les Instruments that punctuated the vocal works, and Rousset directed from the continuo with unobtrusive grace and dexterity.