La Chambre Philharmonique, Cadogan Hall, London – review

Classicism in architecture, literature, theatre and painting is relatively easy to identify. In music it is harder to pin down, but for much of this concert by French period-instrument ensemble La Chambre Philharmonique, conducted by Emmanuel Krivine, it was unmistakeable.

Berlioz aspired to a specifically French understanding of classicism, and this performance of Les nuits d’été, sung by Canadian mezzo Michèle Losier, embodied it. It had fragrance, restraint, purity of form, harmony between constituent parts, something human and something divine. In her deportment, her gestures, her verbal nuance, her ripe, even timbre, Losier held aloft the classical flame, and in doing so represented some sort of ideal. Regular concert-goers always hope for the exceptional. Here was a rare example.

After a tentative “Villanelle”, Losier assumed the voice of the poet for “Le spectre de la rose”, an undeniable emotion irradiating her classical composure. “Sur les lagunes” brought out her rich contralto register, “Absence” her sense of romantic refinement. The final two songs – a mixture of eeriness (“Au cimetière”) and escapism (“L’île inconnue”) – provided a golden apotheosis. Losier is a treasurable artist.

So, too, is Krivine’s 10-year old orchestra, which has been surprisingly slow to develop a profile this side of the Channel. Like the best period ensembles, La Chambre Philharmonique takes nothing for granted. Unlike some higher-profile counterparts, it does not confuse stylistic zeal with musical authenticity. Its all-Berlioz programme – starting with the overture to Béatrice et Bénédict and ending with the Symphonie fantastique – revealed a well-adjusted body of musicians intent on listening to each other, without anyone exaggerating their contribution to the argument.

The symphony was especially impressive. Has the rapt opening string motif ever sounded as revolutionary as this? As a feat of technical and musical finesse, it was a foretaste of the subtly spiced flavour of the performance as a whole. None of the usual “period” epithets applied: the sound was not so much unvarnished and transparent as pungent and prismatic, climaxing in a big, blazing sonority for the “March to the Scaffold” and a succession of ghostly timbres in the “Witches’ Sabbath”. Krivine and his orchestra deserve a return invitation.

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