Merry Christmas, and make it snappy

Les Violons du Roy
The Gazette (Montreal)

Already blessed with a loyal following, Bernard Labadie and Les Violons du Roy made themselves doubly popular on Monday by performing in the dry patch before Christmas. Pollack Hall was packed with fans -- and at least one critic who wondered how such a polished presentation could produce so little seasonal charm.

Not that this was a program of cornball standards, even if a few of the carols Marc-Antoine Charpentier employed in his circa-1694 Messe de minuit have indeed survived in the French-speaking world. With or without the tunes, the music was baroque, and performed in kind.

Which to say that the players and singers (the latter forming La Chapelle de Québec) made sheer, brilliant sounds and articulated rhythms with steely perfection. The choral trills that adorned final cadences were as dizzyingly accurate as they might have been had they emerged from a single, virtuoso voicebox.

Conducting without a baton (and thus) with dramatic gestures, Labadie seemed to find a beat to stress in every bar. There were ample changes in volume in  Charpentier's motet In nativitatem Domini canticum; the Et ascendit of the mass vaulted on cue.

Soloists, including two each of sopranos and tenors, were well chosen. Knifelike Shannon Mercer contrasted with rounded Tracy Smith Bessette. Jeremy Budd was high and crisp and Antonio Figueroa was sweet. Alexandre Sylvestre was a sturdy bass-baritone. All sang democratically, as part of the chorus (which, incidentally, included three males among the six altos).

The program included an intruiging 1749 Christmas motet by Bernard Aymable Dupuy, a Toulouse composer with something of Handel's sense of colour and drama. Broadway would be overstating it, but you get the idea. His elaborate continuo accompaniments included running cello commentaries, confidently dealt with by a musician who gripped the bow stick closer to the middle even than most "baroque" players. Why?

So there was much to hear and discuss, but perhaps not so much to enjoy. Despite all the fetching details, the music-making sometimes seemed calculated and overrehearsed. The beat was brisk but by the same token relentless. Have a Merry Christmas, or else.

The concert began with a piece identified as Simphonies des noëls by Michel Richard Delalande (1657-1726). Even in the 17th century there was a market for Christmas medleys