France's Les Arts Florissants were a pioneering ensemble when they were formed in 1979, unearthing Baroque works from France and beyond and performing them in historically authentic style. The group's influence has hardly diminished over their four decades of existence; they have spawned numerous operatic careers and have established a successful training program, Le Jardin des Voix.
Les Arts Florissants were founded by the American harpsichordist William Christie, who had left the U.S. because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. A scholar as well as a musician, Christie largely created the group's repertory on his own; the works of French Baroque theatrical and choral composers like Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Jean-Philippe Rameau were only sparsely known to audiences when Christie began his work, but he edited new scores for performance, often delving into the collection of Paris' Bibliothèque Nationale. By 1985, Les Arts Florissants were mounting productions of French operas like Rameau's Anacréon and Charpentier's Actéon, sumptuous French court works that required full-scale authentic performances to come alive. In 1987, the group received the first of several Grand Prix de la Critique awards for their production of Jean-Baptiste Lully's Atys, which subsequently toured Europe and New York.
Les Arts Florissants attracted the attention of major French recording companies almost immediately, signing with Harmonia Mundi and releasing a recording of works by the almost unknown composer Etienne Moulinié in 1980. That was the beginning of a partnership with Harmonia Mundi that by the late 2010s had grown to encompass almost 50 albums. Les Arts Florissants have recorded choral music with their own Les Arts Florissants choir, often focusing on the French grand motet repertory, and they have performed and recorded Italian and English operatic works. At the center of their repertory, however, is French opera, a field in which they have reigned supreme and have worked with France's top stage directors and choreographers. The stability of the Les Arts sound has been partly due to the long-term leadership of Christie, who turned over some duties to Scottish-born tenor and conductor Paul Agnew in the late 2000s but has remained active and vital in his involvement with the group.
Over time the group's repertory has expanded forward in time somewhat to include the music of Mozart, but unlike other early music groups they have not attempted contemporary works. In 2002, Christie founded Le Jardin des Voix ("The Garden of Voices"), which soon became one of Europe's top enterprises for the training of young talent in the historical-performance field. Les Arts Florissants did not slacken their pace in the 2010s, releasing several albums a year. In 2019, under Christie, the group released Si vous vouliez un jour: Airs sérieux et à boire, Vol. 2, on Harmonia Mundi.
© James Manheim /TiVo