Given the continuing proliferation of period-instrument ensembles, almost all covering the same Baroque and classical music, it was time the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment led the way in popularising lesser known 17th- and 18th-century repertoires. Not to do so would open the OAE to the charge that it is repeating itself and becoming “just another orchestra”. What London has long needed is not only a variety of stylish champions of Lully and Rameau, but something much more basic – regular exposure to the music itself.
The OAE has never excluded the French Baroque from its work list, but it hasn’t shown much enthusiasm either: would this programme of Charpentier, Lalande and Rameau, with the roughly contemporaneous Purcell thrown in as bait, have been attempted if the orchestra had not been contracted to play Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie next summer at Glyndebourne? With Sarah Connolly at hand to provide a taster of her Phèdre, whose guilty love for her stepson Hippolyte motivates the drama, a preview concert made sense, and as far as Connolly was concerned, we were not disappointed.
Fresh from her triumphant Fricka in the Royal Opera’s Ring, she sounded equally at home in this more fragile music. What she brings is a contained intensity, as expressive in the grandeur and pathos of the aria “Cruelle mère des amours” as in the temperamental extremes of “Eh bien! Viendra-t-il en ces lieux”, Phèdre’s duet with Hippolyte. Connolly’s touchstone was restraint – of vibrato, volume, bearing. She understands that less really is more, a point she underlined equally well in the famous lament from Dido and Aeneas.
That juxtaposition of Rameau and Purcell was telling, insofar as it profiled the dominant role of dance in early 18th-century French musical aesthetics. But the OAE, directed by Jonathan Cohen, didn’t underline the contrasts nearly enough. The extracts from Rameau’s Les Paladins sounded not so much flamboyant as prosaic and leaden, as if the orchestra equated technical rectitude with style. The tenor soloist was Fernando Guimarães, whose super-sweet vocal delivery conjured images of puffed wigs at the French court.