Tuesday, 27 October 2015
La Chaise-Dieu: high and strange
I can confess now that I didn't greatly enjoy the concert which was the reason - along with a chance to interview its conductor, which turned out not to be at length - why I went to La Chaise-Dieu. Mozart's Solemn Vespers seem to me fairly run-of-the-ecclesiastical mill, and Laurence Equilbey's Choeur Accentus, or at least the sopranos, sounded rather dim. Maybe it was the acoustics and they were better on their Barbican visit - Peter Quantrill admired them in his Arts Desk review- but the programme I heard didn't encourage me to catch it again in a different venue.
More memorable was the 'bonus concert' I heard on the evening of my arrival, courtesy of the impressive Chaise-Dieu Music Festival. This was a token attempt, but still one worth making, by Sébastian Daucé's Les Correspondances to capture in two hours the spirit of what originally lasted 13: the Ballet Royal de la Nuit masterminded, and partly danced, by the young Louis XIV in 1653. Each of the 'quatre veilles' excerpted music from large royal projects, and I'm especially grateful to the evening for showing me how the most outstanding contender was the music from Luigi Rossi's Orfeo. Otherwise I might not have made a special effort to go and see the Royal Opera's exceptionally well-cast production in the candlelit magic of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse last Friday. That boasted at least five exceptional young women's voices; this had only one outstanding singer, true contralto Lucile Richardot, but she was a real find.
The approach from Le Puy was magical, the vast volcanic plateau lit by the rays of the setting sun on an exceptionally beautiful evening. Despite one's awareness of climbing, La Chaise-Dieu itself gives little impression of its altitude (1082 metres) since there are only modest inclines around the cathedral-like St-Robert - successor of the original abbey-church, begun in 1343 by the de Beaufort who later became Pope Clement VI and completed by his nephew in 1378.
Pierre-Roger/Clement's black and white marble tomb is in the centre of the choir, where the best seats were (owing to the rood screen,concertgoers in the wide, low nave had to be content with seeing the musicians on screens of another kind either side of it).
My Blue Guide describes St-Robert as 'in the plain heavy Gothic style of the southern French style'. Certainly there's no charm about it, but of course the west front creates a certain massive impression, and the porch was handsomely lit for the festival
as were the two sides of the cloister that remain, restored to a pristine whiteness (featured in the second image).
The most striking feature was the one I saw last, owing to the artists using the north aisle as a dressing room: a crudely-executed but extensive 15th century tempera Dance of Death. Below the frieze furthest to the east is the tomb of Nicolas-Roger de Beaufort, uncle of Clement VI.
It seemed oddly appropriate to a small town, or perhaps village, which I found rather sombre despite the beautiful lights we saw it in. At any rate there was a cafe overlooking the church run by an extremely friendly couple, and another pair, Genet et Jean, welcomed us to the simple-looking Bistro Fougaou, which looked nothing special but served equally simple but utterly delicious food.
Still, I'm glad I was based in Le Puy. I certainly want to return, and walk in the Auvergne. And the good news is that the very special 50th anniversary of the Chaise-Dieu Festival, founded by the great Cziffra, will feature a performance of the Monteverdi Vespers in that great cathedral, which because of its 'working' status as one of the starts to the Camino route rarely gives dispensation to concerts. Meanwhile, here's a last snap of the rewarding landscapes of the Haute-Loire caught on what must be one of France's loveliest train journeys, following the river all the way between Le Puy and Saint-Etienne.