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"French Baroque Cantatas"

Taryn Fiebig, sopranoa; Fiona Campbell, mezzosopranob
Ensemble Battistin
rec: Oct 14 - 18, 2004b, Sep 29 - Oct 2, 2005a, New Norcia (Western Australia), Benedictine Monastery (St Ildephonsus Chapel)
ABC Music - ABC 476 5941 (© 2007) (57'25")

Michel Pignolet DE MONTÉCLAIR (1667-1737): Ariane et Bachusb[3]; La mort de Didonb [2]; Jean-Baptiste STUCK (1680-1757): Céphale et Aurorea [1]; L'amant réconciliéa [1]

(Sources: [1] Jean-Baptiste Stuck, Cantates françoises, bk I, 1706; Michel Pignolet de Montéclair, [2] Cantates, 1er Livre, c1709; [3] Cantates, 3e Livre, 1728)

Kate Clark, transverse flute; Paul Wright, Sophie Gent, violin; Shaun Lee-Chen, viola; Shaun Ng, viola da gamba; Susanne Wijsman, cello; Stewart Smith, harpsichord

The chamber cantata has made a relatively late appearance in the landscape of French baroque music. It was only in the early decades of the 18th century that this kind of music was written. In Italy such pieces were written since the middle of the 17th century. The emergence of the chamber cantata took place in about the same time as the influence of the Italian style on French music began to grow. The sequence of recitatives and arias which is one of the features of Italian operas and cantatas was integrated into the French chamber cantata.

Cantatas were not performed at the stage but in private salons. Therefore the scoring is very limited: one or two voices with basso continuo, or with simphonie, meaning an instrumental ensemble of one to three - usually treble - instruments and bc. Even if more than one character figures in the cantata, all the parts are usually sung by only one singer. The melody instruments mostly play a role in the arias but sometimes they also appear in the recitatives or play a short introduction to the cantata.

The subjects are most of the time taken from classical mythology, and famous characters like Dido and Ariadne often appear. The cantatas often end with a kind of moral lesson as the cantatas on this disc show. Montéclair and Stuck are two of the most successful composers of chamber cantatas from the first half of the 18th century.

Michel Pignolet - he added 'Montéclair' to his name only after 1687 - was one of the first players of the basse de violon in the orchestra of the Opéra. In addition he was active as a music teacher and composed in most genres of his time. Among his compositions are 20 French cantatas and four on an Italian text. The latter are probably the result of his stay in Italy in the retinue of the Prince of Vaudémont when he was his maître de musique. The two cantatas on this disc are about two of the most famous characters in the classical mythology, Dido and Ariadne - both women who have been betrayed by the man they loved. La mort de Didon begins with a dramatic introduction of the violin with basso continuo which leads to the first recitative in which the violin continues to play a prominent role. The first air is a duet of voice and transverse flute; interestingly the ornaments are written-out by the composer. In the second air Dido expresses her anger and asks for revenge. But then she interrupts herself - the aria has no dacapo - and in the following recitative she sings: "Le me choose my victim. Aeneas is in my heart and it is there that I shall wound him". The singer then takes the role of narrator and reports how Dido kills herself. The last aria contains the moral lesson: "How dangerous it is to believe the promises of a fickle lover".

Ariane et Bachus tells the story of Ariadne who is left behind on the island Naxos by her lover Theseus. It is not so much her anger but rather her rescue by Bacchus which is the core of the cantata. He falls in love with her and gives her a crown with seven golden stars. The moral is that betrayed lovers should turn to Bacchus. Montéclair expresses the text with instrumental means, like the viola da gamba whose arpeggiated figure depicts the coming of Bacchus disturbing the waves.

Jean-Baptiste Stuck was born in Italy but of German descent. He was a cellist and composer who lived in Paris from 1705. He had close ties with the Duke of Orléans who was a lover of Italian music, and appointed his Ordinaire de la musique. Although he composed some operas and sacred works he is mainly known for his chamber cantatas. His 20 cantatas on French texts were published in four books between 1706 and 1714. L'amant réconcilié is written for solo voice, two violins and bc and is a largely lyrical work about two lovers who express their happiness that their quarrels are over. The most dramatic part is the aria in which their discord is referred to: "Discord everywhere can bring thunder. Let it arouse war, even among the gods". The B part brings a strong contrast: "Provided my Phyllis responds to my ardour, peace and pleasure will reign in my heart". The cantata ends with a dacapo aria which has a remarkable B part. The text "Echo of these woods, respond to my voice" is illustrated by the violin acting as the echo to the voice.

Céphale et Aurore has a rather uncommon scoring: voice, transverse flute, two violins, viola and bc. The use of four melody instruments is unusual and the scoring for viola even more so. The cantata is about Aurora, goddess of the dawn, who discovers the hunter Cephalus asleep and approaches him. This is very effectively depicted by the repeated notes of the instruments. Aurora urges him to wake up, but then daylight comes and she has to disappear.

This is a very nice disc with fine repertoire. There is a pretty large amount of music to choose from, but both composers whose cantatas are recorded here are not that well represented in the catalogue. That is in particular the case with Stuck. His cantatas certainly belong to the most interesting of the French baroque era. The two singers have nice voices and give very good accounts of their parts. The sing with expression and taste. I have two objections: the diction leaves something to be desired as the text isn't always clearly audible. That is in particular a problem with Fiona Campbell. Secondly I regret that the pronunciation of the texts is not historically justified. I think enough is known about the way French was pronounced at that time. I would like to refer here to the disc with comical cantatas with Dominique Visse and Café Zimmermann.

In addition now and then I had liked a bit more colour in the vocal performances, and the closing 'air gai' f Montéclair's cantata La mort de Didon is a little too subdued. But these are minor criticisms of what in general is a very recommendable release. I don't want to ignore the playing of the ensemble which is really first-rate. The musicians have already shown in the other volumes of this series (*) that they are seasoned performers of French baroque music.

"The Concert Français" and "The Concert Spirituel"
"The Musicians's Table"

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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