Tout Court: Les Violons du Roy Brings Late Baroque to Bailey

Les Violons du Roy
Bernard Labadie music director
Emmanuel Pahud flute
Cornell University, Bailey Hall
October 19, 2012
8:00 pm

More than anyone, we have Frederick the Great (1712-1786) to thank for last Friday night’s program at Bailey Hall. Though progeny to the post-Enlightenment despotism of the times, the Prussian king was first and foremost a student of the arts. Enchanted as a lad of 16 by the virtuosity of Johann Joachim Quantz, he immediately began studying with the German flutist and, much to his warmongering father’s chagrin, added Czech violinist Franz Benda and Johann Sebastian Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel to his roster at court. In due time his sonic coterie would grow to 50, the burgeoning hub from which our artists for the evening, Les Violins du Roy, drew their effervescent bows. The chamber orchestra hails from Québec City, where musical director Bernard Labadie has since 1984 nurtured its reputation for scintillating musicianship and spirited playing of the 17th- and 18th-century material in which it excels. Flutist Emmanuel Pahud, fresh from his tenure at EMI Classics with harpsichordist/conductor Trevor Pinnock, brought his expertise to bear with memorable panache.

Like many creatively inclined patriarchs before him, Frederick fancied himself a composer and penned the Flute Concerto No. 3 in C Major that proved Pahud’s delicacy with his entrance. Its stately dance evoked vine-drenched courtyards and butterfly wings, each a memory passing slowly like the reflections of clouds across water. An intimate interlude cast the final movement like a ray of light: swift, sure, and heaven-sent. Before this was the concert’s opener by Benda. The lilting cadences of his Sinfonia No. 1 in C Major spawned buoyant and programmatic side paths. Particularly evocative were the cautious footsteps in the Andante, like a lover for whom the forest was both prison and escape. Every sweep of violins painted a branch heavy with the foliage of parting.

While competent enough, these two pieces were thin on the ground in light of Quantz’s masterful G-Major Flute Concerto. From the luscious open chords of the Allegro, one thing was clear: here was the living echo unheard in the preceding architecture. Bach and Vivaldi peeked through that distinct veneer like recessive genes in search of expression. A heart-tugging slow movement, brimming with imagery for the hungry ear, found its dearest traction in the intermittent pizzicato shared by double bass and cellos. Incidentally, my newborn son, for whom this was his first live concert, at last settled into sleep during this passage, and on through the blossom of the final Presto. Transcendent.

J.S. Bach made his requisite appearance through the Ricercare from his Musical Offering. This seminal six-voice fugue is an epic in and of itself, and made for grave and inescapable listening. Cinematic before there ever was such a concept, its genius was all the clearer for Les Violons du Roy’s weighted playing—impressive after the concert’s gallant first half. The music of C.P.E. then brought its expressive foil through two works. His Symphony in B Minor was a treat to hear in close quarters. With sparkling invention and drama, it showed us a unique voice indeed, managing to step away from his father’s legacy while trailing just enough of it like a Peter Pan shadow. So too with the Flute Concerto in A Major. Despite being a younger work, it harbors some of his most mature lyricism in the Largo. From its inward sigh and downright Beethovenian tension in the lower strings, we felt a heart broken and restored. This made the final Allegro all the more cathartic for its implosive double stops. Pahud excelled here most of all, navigating a geography that was jagged but never sharp. The latter was a guiding philosophy for an orchestra that knows how to spike its punch, for even at their most intense, under Labadie’s direction the strings were never grating. Likewise, Pahud’s tone struck rare balance between the shrill and rounded capabilities of his instrument.

It would have been a travesty to have had a world-renowned flutist and Baroque chamber orchestra and not be treated to Father Bach’s famous Badinerie from the B-minor Orchestral Suite No. 2. In this respect they delivered with embellishments galore that had us leaving in the same laughter and lightness of spirit that this delightful encore provided.