Situated at nearly 1100 metres on a promontory in the Haute-Loire, the small village of La Chaise-Dieu is dominated by the massive Benedictine abbey of St Robert. Founded in 1043, the present building dates from the 14th century, when it was built under the patronage of Pope Clement VI, who is buried in the abbey.
Today La Chaise-Dieu is best known as the venue of a music festival begun almost half a century ago with a single recital given by the great Hungarian pianist György Cziffra. From such modest beginnings the festival has developed into an event that in 2015 was spread over nine days during which more than 50 events took place. The festival was one of the first to embrace early music and period instrument performance and, while by no means restricted to such repertoire, a significant number of concerts fall into that context. Many, in keeping with the festival’s focus on sacred music, take place in the vast abbey church, but in more recent years the festival has broadened beyond the confines of Chaise-Dieu to other venues, including the historic town of Le Puy-en-Velay. In 2016 a central pillar of the festival’s 50th anniversary will be a performance of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers in the town’s famous pilgrimage cathedral.
Among notable early music visitors this summer were the countertenor Max Emanuel Čenčič, whose ‘Art of the Castrato’ programme included works by Rossi, Porpora, Leo and Handel, La Chapelle Rhénane under Benoît Haller (Bach Mass in B minor), María Cristina Kiehr with Concerto Soave (Purcell), and the concert I was able to hear on my first visit to Chaise-Dieu, given in the abbey church on 26 August by the choir Accentus and the Insula Orchestra under their founder and director, Laurence Equilbey.
The programme consisted of three works, the Miserere in C minor of Zelenka, Mozart’s Solemn Vespers, K339, and the C. P. E. Bach Magnificat, the soloists for the latter two works being Judith van Wanroij (s), Renata Pokupić (a), Reinoud van Mechelen (t), and Andreas Wolf (b). Doubtless to compensate for the vast space she had to fill, Equilbey employed unusually large choral and orchestral forces for this repertoire. While perhaps not ideal this worked well enough for the Zelenka and Mozart, but in the Bach Equilbey was unable to avoid an impression of a certain unwieldiness in passages such as ‘Et misericordia’. Elsewhere there was much to admire; the opening ‘Magnificat’ was imbued with impressive dynamic energy, as indeed the initial urgent ‘Miserere’ of Zelenka’s imposing and agreeably eccentric tripartite setting been earlier. ‘Fecit potentiam’ had splendid authority in the hands of the outstanding Wolf, while Pokupić was wonderfully sensitive in ‘Suscepit Israel’.
Most satisfying of all was the Mozart, given a performance that at once confirmed the impression given by Equilbey’s CD of the Requiem that she is that rare beast, a born Mozartian. Absence of mannerism, beautifully judged tempos and balance in both chorus and orchestra, allied to fine playing and choral singing and a fine line-up of soloists all went to contributing as satisfying a performance of the work as one is likely to encounter. Laudate pueri was notable for the clarity with which the contrapuntal texture was laid out, while Judith van Wanroij shaped Laudate Dominum with exquisite taste and a lack of sentimentality underpinned by Equilbey’s sensitive direction. Laurence Equilbey and her forces will be bringing the same programme to the Barbican Centre on 21 September. London concert goers should not miss it.