There are very few violin players around the world who have had a more impressive entrée to the world of Baroque music than the French superstar Théotime Langlois de Swarte. After many years of learning violin and singing in a choir conducted by his own mother, Langlois de Swarte entered the Paris Conservatoire aged just 17 to study modern violin with Michaël Hentz. At the unbelievable age of just 18 he successfully auditioned for the acclaimed early music ensemble Les Arts Florissants and its Director, William Christie, and it was through his time with Les Arts Florissants that Langlois de Swarte realised that, long term, he most wanted to express himself through Baroque music. Aged barely 20 and still a student, Langlois de Swarte also founded his own period band, Le Consort, and he is the recipient of an ever-growing list of major awards, including the 2022 “Diapason D’or of the year” for his recording of Vivaldi, Locatelli, and Leclair concertos (Harmonia Mundi), and the 2022 “Ambassador of the Year” award from the European Early Music Network (REMA) amongst others.
In the latest of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s offerings in this city, we were treated to a chance to hear the Melbourne debut of this exceptionally talented French violinist. To showcase his abilities and sensitivities we were treated to a superbly curated pastiche – The Lover – a self-described “Jacobean tragic comedy” created by Langlois de Swarte himself, filled with a seamless blend of works by composers who were working in England at the time of Charles II’s reign (most fittingly, Langlois de Swarte actually plays a 1665 violin by Jacob Stainer – made just five years after Charles II restored the monarchy).
The pastiche was based around the improvisational ground bass Aire from The Mad Lover Suite by the 17th-century English composer John Eccles, which, according to the charismatic young violinist, became an “obsession”… “The more I performed it in concert, the more it became an extension of my own expression” he is quoted as saying.
From the opening notes of the ground bass of John Eccles, which opened both halves of the concert, we were treated to an exceptionally well-curated collection of works by father and son composers (and violinists) Nicola Matteis (fl. 1670, d. after 1713) and Nicola Matteis ‘the younger’ (late 1670’s -1737), the great Henry Purcell (1659 -1695) and his brother Daniel (c.1664 -1717), as well as John and Henry Eccles (c.1668-1735 and 1675 -85 respectively).
Performed against an attractive theatrical set designed by Trent Suidgeest, the music conveyed to the audience a series of moods and emotions ranging from reflective melancholy to outright exuberance and celebration or, perhaps more fittingly, joie de vivre.
The performance began with core ABO players entering in semi-casual attire in neutral colours, taking up various positions in an informal parlour setting dominated by a large teal green curtain draped elegantly to one side. The set, consisting of pastel-coloured fabrics, a very comfortable looking pale green velvet chaise lounge, striking blue irises in glass vases, warm light projected from a series of reading lamps, the gilded harpsichord placed centre stage, a baroque harp sat next to the lounge and a round table and chairs set to one side (complete with wineglasses, playing cards, and silver balloons), was all very homely and elegant.
With Jamie Hey comfortably seated on the chaise lounge playing his violone, Hannah Lane seated nearby with her Baroque harp and Tommie Anderson and Nicholas Pollock seated across the room with their theorbos and Baroque guitars, Langlois de Swarte made his entry, looking tired and weary (as the lover), dressed in his concert blacks in contrast to his casually attired cohort.
After removing his jacket and tie, and with his eyes closed, Langlois de Swarte began playing, immediately displaying all the hallmarks of what his performance would demonstrate throughout the entire evening: a relaxed playing stance and graceful bow technique, constantly beautiful warm tone, minimal yet always meaningful use of vibrato, and maximum musical style and sensitivity to both the music and his fellow performers.
The Adagio from Daniel Purcell’s Sonata Sesta for solo violin set a fairly sombre mood, with a few improvised bars even briefly referencing brother Henry’s famous Dido’s Lament from his opera Dido and Aeneas in a moment of subtle musical humour.
What followed in the first half was a series of short works by Nicola Matteis and his son, and the better- known Henry Purcell. Nicola Matteis was the earliest notable Italian Baroque violinist in London, judged in retrospect “to have been a second to Corelli”, according to the famous biographer and diarist Roger North, and a “composer of significant popularity in his time”, though he had been utterly forgotten until the later 20th century.
We were treated to a series of delightful, yet fairly sedate conversations between Langlois de Swarte’s violin, Jamie Hey’s violone, Hannah Lane’s Baroque harp and Nicholas Pollock’s Baroque guitar, with the young Frenchman casually wandering around the stage, often playing with his eyes closed, and intentionally moving towards his fellow performers when the music called for extra sensitivity and fine tuning.
Nicola Matteis’ interestingly named Diverse bizzarrie Sopra la Vecchia Sarabanda ò pur Ciaccona is really a series of increasingly elaborate variations over a simple four-bar ground bass in sarabande rhythm, which is repeated 47 times. It marked the arrival of ABO Artistic Director Paul Dyer, who wandered onto the set wearing a magnificent silver sequinned jacket and bearing a bottle of (presumably very fine) wine. Beaming with delight from his gilded harpsichord, the somewhat sombre gathering suddenly felt like a party with the addition of Dyer’s delicate continuo playing and the arrival of Anton Baba on Baroque cello. Fiery outbursts of solo violin segueing into gorgeous duets for harp and violin were a highlight.
This was intimate chamber music at its very best. A series of elegant and sophisticated musical conversations between six masters of their respective instruments.
The Sonata Undecimo in G minor by Henry Eccles (1670–1742) provided another perfect vehicle to demonstrate Théotime Langlois de Swarte’s musical class and versatility. Mesmerisingly beautiful legato playing with elegant, seamless bowing gave way to fiery aggression in the faster movements such as the Corente. Stacato Allegro and the Presto. It was as if there was a miniature chamber orchestra inside de Swarte’s own violin, playing along and dancing with him in perfect harmony. It was a masterclass of rhythmic precision, superb intonation and impressive double-stopping prowess. Whilst various players moved to the dining table for a glass of something refreshing (and a cheeky game of cards) in the quieter movements, the soloist casually wandered around the stage beguiling the audience with his exquisite tone and musicianship.
A change of lighting altered the mood, and with Pollock’s theorbo, Andersson’s guitar, Hey’s violone and Dyer’s harpsichord all jamming away in a riot of orchestral colour, Baroque trills and energy on the set, it was enough to break up the card game and get everyone back to their respective instruments.
The natural exponent of Henry Purcell’s famous song, Musick for a While was once the famous countertenor Alfred Deller, but such was the young Frenchman’s performance in this concert that he and his violin temporarily claimed complete ownership of it. As the stage became darker in various hues of blue and purple, various players exited until we were just left with Dyer at the harpsichord, Jamie Hey providing the ever-reliable ground bass, and Langlois de Swarte himself (senza bow tie by now), standing in the blue night light in a simple white shirt as if he were playing for his own enjoyment at home.
Offstage guitars called the banda back to the stage, and some more clever lighting changes gave the effect of the sun rising. As the sun “rose”, the party came back to life, and as Dyer looked on with a glass of (presumably French) Rosé in hand, we were treated to another Baroque jam session, with the full ensemble of players now standing and gathered around the chaise lounge playing, strumming, slapping, plucking and bowing their way to the interval in Henry Eccles’ A new division upon the ground bass of John come kiss me now.
After the interval, the set was cleared (apart from two magnificent bunches of blue Irises placed centre stage), and the entire ABO, now dressed in simple black, filled the stage for the two contrasting concertos that were to follow.
After another version of John Eccles’ Aire 5 from The Mad Lover Suite with some ravishing variations from ABO concertmaster Sean Lee Chen and Langlois de Swarte, we heard the Concerto Grosso No.5 in D minor by Charles Avison (1709 -1770). A bold and stately first movement gave way to some cleanly-articulated playing from the soloist, and a third movement notable for the delicate and sonorous playing of the ABO strings, which provided superb accompaniment and welcome expression throughout. The interaction between the French soloist and the experienced front desk ABO players Shaun-Lee Chen, Matthew Bruce and Ben Dollman in the inner movements was an extremely satisfying musical experience. But it was the final Allegro movement that reminded us again of the superstar that we had with us when Langlois de Swarte turned up the heat for the final thrilling movement, which again demonstrated emphatically his phenomenal bowing technique and tone, dished up with a spectacular series of scintillating tremolos, some very impressive double (and triple) stopping, and super-fast string-crossing bariolage playing that was as dramatic as it was virtuosic. It all seemed so easy. And the intonation was impeccable.
Vivaldi’s six-movement Violin Concerto in D minor was given spectacular treatment, from the rapidly and consistently cleanly-executed semiquavers in the opening Allegro to ice-cold staccato chords in the second Adagio movement, reminiscent of Purcell’s famous Cold Song. The on-stage direction from Langlois de Swarte was meticulous, flashy and musically exciting, but the ABO violins were always up to the task, with ABO leader Shaun-Lee Chen responding to the Frenchman’s interpretation with a forensic attention to detail and an equally-impressive range of dynamics.
So intense was Langlois de Swarte’s playing in the final movement that he almost forgot he also had to play the last programmed piece – the thrilling Allegro movement five of Francesco Maria Veracini’s Sonata in A Major, Op. 1 No.7. How one could possibly forget a piece like that I just don’t know! As soon as he realised the concert was not over yet, Langlois de Swarte gave a masterclass in superb fast playing, which left the audience breathless. And yet he looked as relaxed and unflustered as you could ever imagine, with a beautiful smile shining from beneath his mop of dark hair and not a bead of sweat to be seen.
Not one, but two encores were demanded by the audience – by acclamation. A white-hot rendition of Vivaldi’s dazzling “Summer” movement from The Four Seasons seemed like an obvious end point to the concert, but a show of hands from the audience demanded more, and the final offering from this superbly talented soloist came in the form of the second movement from Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 5, transcribed for violin by the composer, describing it as a melody that represents “all that is beautiful in the world”. The gentle pizzicato of the ABO strings provided a delicate pillow on which Langlois de Swarte placed his mellifluous and inherently musical solo. After all the flashes of speed and lightning-fast virtuosity it was incredibly moving and calming, providing the stunned audience with a musical experience that was for many of us almost spiritual.
The beauty of Théotime Langlois de Swarte’s playing was matched on stage only by his humility in this most memorable and impressive Melbourne debut performance. It was a joyful triumph of Baroque music-making at its best.
Credit to Paul Dyer and the ABO for enabling another emerging world-class talent such as this personable Frenchman to grace our cities’ stages. Given the success of this concert, I am confident this will not be the last time we get the chance to hear this exceptionally talented performer in Australia, but for now if you get the chance to hear him play I encourage you to do so.
Photo credit Michael Bradfield.
The ABO and Théotime Langlois de Swarte will also perform The Lover at City Recital Hall, Sydney on 13, 15, and 16 September.
Andrew Wailes reviewed “The Lover”, presented by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and performed by Théotime Langlois de Swarte, baroque violin and guest director, and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Thursday, September 7, 2003.