Over the last 25 years Hervé Niquet has emerged as one of the most ebullient defenders and inspired interpreters of French music from the Baroque to the early 20th century, and never one to be shy of approaching composers and music disdained by others.
With Le Concert Spirituel – which he founded in 1987 – there has been a constant stream of performances and recordings devoted to the music of the likes of Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Joseph Bodin de Boismortier and Pierre Bouteiller (and of Baroque composers from other countries besides), whilst Niquet’s musical vision has also encompassed unjustly neglected operatic compositions in the tragédie lyrique genre.
Charles-Simon Catel’s Sémiramis – first performed in 1802 – is one of those neglected tragédies lyriques, now recorded and released, and Glossa is also issuing a two-disc survey celebrating a quarter century of music-making from Le Concert Spirituel, covering enticing selections of choral, orchestral and dramatic works, as well as some personally-chosen instrumental bonbons (which include Hervé Niquet as harpsichordist).
To explore the passions in Hervé Niquet’s music-making the opportunity arose to speak both to the director himself but also to Alexandre Dratwicki, the directeur scientifique of the Palazzetto Bru Zane – Centre de musique romantique française, an organization which is leading the way in the researching and promoting of forgotten French music from the 19th century, and which is behind the revival of Sémiramis.
On Broadway: the tragédie lyrique
Such a wide-ranging sweep of musical history and its forms carried out by Hervé Niquet derives from an all-encompassing musical talent: Niquet came to be a conductor by way of his keyboard talents, as a vocal coach, as a singer himself and as a composer, not to mention his own musicological activities as a researcher. However, it was in his time as a vocal coach/pianist at the Opéra de Paris (prior to founding Le Concert Spirituel) that he first acquired a strong and idiosyncratic understanding of what makes a tragédie lyrique ‘tick’. As Niquet has demonstrated with his recordings and performances this operatic form was actively employed by composers from the 17th century – with Lully – all the way into the 19th century with composers like Catel (who died in 1830).
Niquet recalls being on tour in New York with the Opéra de Paris, “And there I discovered what the Broadway musical was. Every evening I went to a Broadway show. You have music, involved actors, dancers, costume, machinery, painting, choreography: it is a complete show. Like the tragédie lyrique! And you have the best singers and actors of the moment, the best composers and stage directors, and you try to do the latest most modern way of doing a show from a technical point of view. Again like the tragédie lyrique in the 17th and 18th century! Even if the subject matters and styles are different, the scope for the fabulous, for love stories, gods, dance and how to surprise the audience come down to the same thing. When you are in the Broadway you have the sound of Broadway: there is one school, one technique. Many students of this school were able to go on Broadway. Likewise with the tragédie lyrique: you must know how to do recits, how to be clear, you must do all the ornaments, you must know the choreography and how to move in the production. It was therefore not difficult for me, after one month in Broadway, to acquire an idea of the tragédie lyrique.”
Since then, over the past half decade, Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel have recorded a string of tragédies lyriques: Callirhoé by Destouches, Proserpine by Lully, Sémélé by Marais, Andromaque by Grétry and now Sémiramis by Catel.
Founding Le Concert Spirituel
But it wasn’t the tragédie lyrique which first inspired Hervé Niquet to form Le Concert Spirituel. “I have a bad memory from 26 years ago. This occurred when I was in a rehearsal of the Lamentations by Jean Gilles with a choir being directed by a famous (but one who wasn’t French) conductor. When he opened up the score in front of us, he said, ‘Oh, my God, French music! What is this music? It is impossible. I can do nothing with this music!’ I was so shocked! I said to myself, ‘when I have the money to create an ensemble I will do my first recording with this piece. And I did, the year after!’ Therefore, the beginning of Le Concert Spirituel’s life set out to prove how the sacred music is so important in the musical route of the 17th and 18th centuries.”
25 years later that determination is still very much apparent with recordings such as the Bouteiller Requiem, which also features undervalued composers such as Louis Le Prince, Henri Frémart and Pierre Hugard.
The theatrical tendencies of Hervé Niquet are never far from the surface, even away from the opera house, and with Le Concert Spirituel he has celebrated a pair of significant anniversaries with the development of two concert programmes matching spectacular effects with musicological rigour.
“For our 15th anniversary we carried out a lot of research on the use of oboes, bassoons and brass instruments in Baroque music and, having got into contact with many instrument makers and musicologists, we put this into practice by performing Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks – the only piece I know which employs 24 oboes, 18 bassoons, 9 horns, 9 trumpets…
For the 25th anniversary I resolved to carry out more research, but this time for the singers of Le Concert Spirituel. I had first encountered the Mass for 40 (and 60) voices by Alessandro Striggio more than 25 years ago and for 2012 I decided to get in touch with many, many singers for the performances that we were going to put on. In fact, I ended up auditioning no less than 273 people, from which to choose the 60 singers needed.”
A review of the Handel Fireworks Music and Water Music 2012 London BBC Proms concert in The Guardian newspaper in the UK described the performance as ‘… a tour de force for Le Concert Spirituel and Niquet, a kind of one-man-ballet on a podium, conducted by dancing his way through it all with unashamed glee’, a comment which Hervé Niquet sees as being evidence of the “physical harmony” between music, ensemble and conductor that he strives to achieve in performance. It also brings out yet another artistic talent possessed by Niquet, “When I was young I was a dancer as well as a singer; so nowadays I am quite prepared to mix these activities together, and let go!”.
Such an interest in dancing and in ballet is also acting as a stimulus for a new programme being performed by Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel: ballets by two barely-known late 18th century composers Jean-Joseph Rodolphe and Jean-Benjamin de La Borde with choreography (performed by the Compagnie de danse baroque L’Eventail), as created by an original master of that art, Jean-Georges Noverre.
Why had Hervé Niquet taken on this project? “For me, dance on stage goes together with music; dance does not exist without music in the western world. The gesture of Barque dance is so odd that you cannot do the dance or just play the music. It is the two of them together. Noverre was another kind of genius as a choreographer, and I was interested to know whether the music from these ballets – from completely unknown composers – had something special about it. I found that the ‘noise’ of the music is so efficient with the movement of the dance and it is important, when you are in the orchestra pit, playing music of a secondary or tertiary level, that you are efficient. Thus, I wanted to feel the collaboration between the composer and the choreographer. In conjunction with the Château de Versailles we recreated the painting and the costumes for this production there is a special combination of choreography, music, costume, painting, atmosphere and lighting, all making for a very interesting project. Again, it is Broadway, a monument of many jobs”.
Researching French music in Versailles and Venice
As well as uniting dance and music this ballet programme also involves the production activities of two organizations with which Niquet has been having extensive collaborations: the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles (CMBV) and the more recently-created Palazzetto Bru Zane – Centre de musique romantique française (PBZ), based in Venice.
For over two decades Niquet’s work in bringing back to life neglected music from the French Baroque has been greatly assisted by the CMBV, allowing for manuscripts to be properly considered and suitable present day performing conditions found.
As he says, “For many reasons, there had been problem with editions of such music. Fifty years ago many things were a mystery. Now the work of the CMBV has helped us to find many answers on a technical level with musicologists, organologists, palaeographers and so on. Now it is easier but when I hear 50 year-old recordings of music by André Campra (or by other such composers) it is difficult to listen to them now, although they were steps on a staircase. Today, we have more information available and the approach is easier.”
Funding the musical adventure
Amidst all the joys and excitements of reviving neglected compositions from the past, it should not be forgotten that any such musical work ends up requiring a great deal of money to allow it to function and, from this point of view, Hervé Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel have been fortunate in being beneficiaries of two important musical patrons over the years: Jean and Nicole Bru (who had developed the medical research UPSA Group).
What importance does Hervé Niquet place on their role of Jean and Nicole Bru in the development of Le Concert Spirituel over the last 25 years? “It is not difficult to say. If they had not been there, Le Concert Spirituel would not exist. It is clear and definitive because Jean gave me money to do my first recording (and for subsequent ones too). When Jean died in 1989, never once did Nicole decide to stop give money to Le Concert Spirituel. More than that, they taught me how to make good use of the money that they had given me. I have the feeling that they have felt responsible for the ensemble, like parents, so this is all more than simply a question of sponsorship or patronage.”
And Hervé Niquet was one of the prime movers in encouraging into existence the work of the Palazzetto Bru Zane, both through his desire for Romantic French music to be re-evaluated in a serious manner and through his persuasiveness in involving Nicole Bru in such a wide-ranging project.
Alexandre Dratwicki picks up the story, “When Dr Nicole Bru established the Palazzetto in Venice in 2007, she was wanting from the outset to create a place dedicated to art and which would champion an original, creative and above all unique objective. The notion of ‘being useful’ and of ‘standing up for good causes’ was also part of the status of the Fondation Bru. When the idea of a centre for Romantic French music was presented to Mme Bru, one can imagine therefore how enthusiastically and seriously received it was. And the demanding and impassioned support of Doctor Bru has never been denied since.”
He goes on to comment on the similarities – and the differences – between the two centres for French music: “Since a long time back, the CMBV has been interchanging ‘Grandes Journées’ dedicated to famous musical names such as Lully or Rameau and to unknowns like Dauvergne, Gossec and Desmarest. There is, nonetheless, a fundamental difference between our repertory and that championed by Versailles: Romantic music was international whilst music from Lully to Gluck had been composed for one specific place, latterly two – the court at Versailles and the Académie royale de musique. That explains why the networks of the CMBV and of the Palazzetto are not the same. On the other hand the act of incorporating different musical activities and skills (research, publishing, programming, recording) is a special feature uniting the two centres.”
Catel’s Sémiramis: two centuries of neglect
Reversing the neglect of music of a high quality is a constant driving force in the career of Hervé Niquet, and he adds, “We have many composers neglected for various reasons – due to questions of fashion, sources, editions, questions of stupidity, questions of lack of culture in conductors and concert programmers. However, recently with the Brussels Philharmonic I made a recording of music by Max D’Ollone. Who knows Max D’Ollone? Nobody – but he is a composer of genius, I say. In fact, I prefer his music to that of Debussy! It is so important. We should be very happy that we have many neglected composers, and that with Charles-Simon Catel and his Sémiramis it is really great to find this score.”
Alexandre Dratwicki was directly involved in the exhaustive work on bringing the Catel score to a state of modern production (and he has written the booklet article for the new Glossa release). Reaching the age of 16 when the French Revolution broke out Catel was appointed as a professor of harmony counterpoint at the Conservatoire in Paris when only 22, his first opera, Sémiramis, was not performed until 1802. It was not given the most supportive of receptions (although it went on to receive further performances in 1810). Given that that were was plenty of negative criticism for the composer and his opera in his own time, why does Dratwicki believe that it merits being revived now?
“There is a principle in not relying upon the critics – from the original time, or today from musicologists who have not had a ‘sonic access’ to such compositions speaking sometimes totally out of context – which prevails. I would be teasing you in telling you that if a work was judged mediocre in its own time, then that is what undoubtedly makes is very interesting! We have had some fantastic experience from this point of view, such as Andromaque by Grétry, for example. One shouldn’t forget that works ahead of their time have always had the figure of derision pointed at them. And then one should also distrust those waspish pens of caustic personalities such as Berlioz and Debussy… Catel’s Sémiramis has been talked about for years in musicological circles or amongst enthusiasts for rare opera… We needed to verify precisely what is meant by the idea of ‘it is claimed’.”
Who was Johann-Christoph Vogel?
Another composer whose reputation has suffered with the passing of the years has been the Nuremberg-born Johann Christoph Vogel, born in 1756, active in France and a follow of no less than CW Gluck and his operas. Yet Gluck is known in the history books for a sequence of operas, whilst Vogel, if he is known at all, is known for some symphonies. Where does Hervé Niquet think history went wrong?
“Initially, the musicologists decided that Vogel was famous for his symphonies, but I am not sure that they had actually heard these symphonies, or the trio and the quartet. If they had heard the symphonies they could say – ‘heavens, what a composer of genius’, and they could then try find if he had written any operas as well. But this never happened. Who knows Démophon [premiered in Paris in 1789]? Who knows La Toison d’or [premiered two years previously]? Nobody, not even musicologists. It is the good work of the Palazzetto Bru Zane which has brought us these works.
In my opinion, having now performed the work, La Toison d’or is incredible! It is much better than all the pieces of Gluck. Gluck is a sort of bad student in front of this piece by Vogel. You just cannot imagine how the musicians and the singers were so impressed by the Vogel piece. We were completely exhausted after working for two weeks on the work, a sort of Olympic Games to play this piece. Gluck? Pah, boring!”
To conclude this 25th anniversary view of the musical adventures of Le Concert Spirituel, Alexandre Dratwicki considers Vogel’s La Toison d’or – the opera which has now been performed and recorded by Hervé Niquet – from a different perspective. The work was also performed as Médée de Colchos.
“The Medea (Médée) myth has fascinated more composers than we know about. During the years 1780-1800, we know of no less than one opera by Gossec, another by Vogel, one by Fontenelle, one by Cherubini and a grand ballet from Noverre which was repeated a dozen of times under the Empire, all dealing with this clearly very ‘pre-Romantic’ character. Nonetheless, Vogel’s opera stands out by far as the most frenetic of all of them by the virtual absence of moments of dramatic relaxation.
The role of Médée, overwhelming from start to finish, occupies an astonishing place, which makes one think of the fortitude required of the singers of the time, those who were able to take on such roles on many successive evenings across a number of weeks. That, without doubt, is also one of the reasons why this opera has not been revived. With a higher tuning, even slightly so, it becomes truly challenging for the soloist and we, incidentally, took the decision in the end to record at 392 Hz without which no ‘Médée’ would have considered taking part. The opera is a fascinating one, and the public of the time did not understand what form of Romanticism it was nurturing. It has been said that Vogel had exaggerated the Gluckian style. Perhaps this is true, but it is a good thing that he did so! I am convinced that if Maria Callas had known this Médée rather than the one by Cherubini, she would have chosen Vogel’s! In any event all the ingredients for a successful opera are in place, and we are trying to ensure that we can stage it whenever the opportunity arises!”
MARK WIGGINS © 2012 Glossa Music / Note 1 Music photographs © Nicole Bergé