Notes and Editorial Reviews
LES GRÂCES FRANÇOISES
Jennifer Paulino (sop); Annette Bauer (rec); Rebekah Ahrendt (vdg); Jonathan Rhodes Lee (hpd)
MSR 1396 (76:21
Text and Translation)
: 9th concert.
Pieces in a.
Pieces in D.
Ariane et Bachus
Unless you are a fan of French music of the
, chances are that the names on this disc are not going to be terribly familiar. Marin Marais is known to viol fans, and François Couperin’s harpsichord music is well represented in the repertory, but Nicolas Bernier (1665–1734) and Jacques Duphly (1715–89) are probably not on everyone’s mind, and even Michel de Montéclair, whose cantatas I reviewed in the last issue, won’t ring too many bells. Nor are you going to get much information out of the notes for this disc, since they are quite perfunctory. From what I can gather, this is an early-instrument chamber ensemble calling itself The Graces (Les Graces) and has achieved some success in the Bay Area of California since it was formed in 2008, though I was unable to find other recordings by it. Indeed, the acknowledgments seem to indicate that this particular disc was specifically funded by the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music and a special fundraising effort. Not that it matters, of course, since it is the music that ought to be the primary focus, but it does make one wonder about both availability and stability of the group itself for future recordings.
What one has here are two occasional cantatas, one a French coffee cantata by Bernier, in which the joys of java are extolled as nectar of the gods (and how can anyone resist that?). Although today we would hardly blink at such a work, in the beginning of the 18th century, when chocolate was the hot beverage of choice, coffee was an exotic (and sometimes medicinal) elixir newly emerged from the Turkish invasions. It is not without some truth that it is to be preferred to intoxicating wine, the “jus séditieux” (seditious juice), as the text says. Indeed, one wonders if Bach knew of this work, since there seems to be more than a coincidental similarity in the opening prelude with his own more rustic work. The brief Montéclair cantata has a more classical bent to it, more of a narrative of the tale of the abandoned Ariadne and her rescue by the god Bacchus. Despite the rather eloquent language, there is some polite impersonality about it that contrasts to the often emotional and evocative Italian cantatas of the same period. The remaining three pieces are suites consisting of alternating fast and slow dance movements. In the Couperin, the rollicking fourth movement, titled rather nicely “je ne scay quoy” (I don’t know what), runs along with a nice bit of imitation, almost like a folk hornpipe, indicating that there was some sort of inside joke here. In the first movement, “Le Charme,” the recorder and gamba have a delightfully languid duet that flows like a gentle stream, with the harpsichord retreating daintily into the background. In the Marais suite taken from his
Pièces de violes
from 1711, the music is particularly precise, with the gamba now performing more of a solo role with double-stopped chords and particularly generous use of the registers, from mellow tenor to rich bass, particularly in the fluid prelude. This is highly stylized music, carefully contrived and meant to be delivered so that listeners can appreciate the various subtleties rather than some overt display of either emotion or technical ability. The Duphly suite, on the other hand, seems almost deliberately anachronistic, written in 1756, which as everyone will remember is the year of Mozart’s birth. Even French music had largely begun to move on, and so his work is either highly conservative or nostalgic, take your pick. The opening deliberate prelude titled “Les Graces” seems very Couperin, but the fast-moving “La de Belombre” that follows could have been taken out of Rameau’s justly famed
Pièces de Clavecin
of two decades earlier, filled as it is with complex ornamentation and an almost perpetual-motion running line. The minuets make this more akin to a classical sonata, and these are easily the most modern pieces, with a good sense of the triple meter dance rhythm and nicely varying textures. Montéclair’s little sonata is graceful and easygoing. Even a 10-second “Simphonie” consisting of modulating Alberti bass in the recorder does not move the work into the realm of the dramatic. The result, such as in the third aria, is an even melodic flow that concentrates upon a line that is tender and deliberate rather than emotional or contrasting.
The performances by the quartet of musicians is extremely good. Annette Bauer’s recorder-playing has both a clear tone and finely nuanced ornamentation, while the continuo consisting of gambist Rebekah Ahrendt and harpsichordist Jonathan Rhodes provides a firm and often prescient underpinning. No retreating here, particularly in the suites, such as the jumpy “L’Enjouëment” of the Couperin suite, and I am particularly impressed by the dark rich tone that Ahrendt is able to conjure in the prelude of the Marais suite. Soprano Jennifer Paulino is able to provide the necessary clear voice and finely tuned ornaments required of this sort of music, although she can be a touch strident in her upper registers and when faced with melismas, such as in the final “air gay” of the Coffee Cantata, she is not always spot-on in terms of clarity of line or pitch. Still, I think this group has made an excellent start and I hope that it will be able to provide more of this repertory in the future. For lovers of that genteel style, this disc would be a fine addition to the collection.
FANFARE: Bertil van Boer
Works on This Recording
La Caffé by Nicolas Bernier
Written: c1703; France
Venue: Hertz Hall, University of California, Be
Length: 17 Minutes 13 Secs.
Ariane et Bachus, for ensemble by Michel Monteclair
Venue: Hertz Hall, University of California, Be
Length: 14 Minutes 51 Secs.
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