musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Les Élements - Tempêtes, Orages & Fêtes Marines"

Le Concert des Nations
Dir: Jordi Savall

rec: July 19, 2015 (live), Fontfroide, Abbaye
AliaVox - AVSA9914 (2 CDs) (© 2015) (1.38'45")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I/S/Cat
Cover, track-list & booklet

Matthew LOCKE (1621/22-1677): The Tempest, incidental music; Marin MARAIS (1656-1728): Alcyone, tragédie en musique (prélude; marche pour les Matelots I/II; air des Matelots I/II; Tempête; ritournelle; chaconne pour les Tritons); Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764): Hippolyte et Aricie, tragédie en musique (Tonnerre); Les Indes Galantes, opéra-ballet (air pour les Zéphirs; Orage et air pour Borée); Zoroastre, tragédie en musique (contredanse; contredanse très vive); Jean-Fery REBEL (1666-1747): Les Elémens, symphonie de danse; Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Overture in C 'Wasser-Music'/'Hamburger Ebb' und Fluth' (TWV 55,C3); Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc in F, op. 10,1 'La Tempesta di mare' (RV 433)a

Pierre Hamon (soloa), Sébastien Marq, recorder; Marc Hantaï, Yi-Fen Chen, transverse flute; Alessandro Pique, Emiliano Rudolfi, oboe; Manfredo Kraemer, David Plantier, Santi Aubert, Guadalupe del Moral, Kathleen Leidig, Mauro Lopes, IsabelSerrano, violin; Angelo Bartoletti, Giovanni de Rosa, viola; Balász Máté, Antoine Ladrette, cello; Josep Borràs, bassoon; Xavier Puertas, double bass; Enrike Solinis, theorbo, guitar; Guido Morini, harpsichord; Pedro Estevan, Daniel Garay, percussion

The 16th century saw a tendency towards a closer connection between text and music, especially in madrigals. Orlandus Lassus and Cipriano de Rore were some of the main exponents of this development. But they used musical figures exclusively to depict human emotions, such as joy, anger, sadness and despair. Clément Janequin was one of the first who used such figures to illustrate events like the hunt (La Chasse) and war (La Guerre). In the next century this kind of compositions became quite popular. One of the best-known examples is the Capriccio stravagante by Carlo Farina. For many years he worked in Dresden and can be considered the founding father of the German-Austrian violin school. Later representatives of this school, such as Johann Jacob Walther, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber and Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, created several pieces of this kind.

The present set of two discs is devoted to specimens of "tone painting" - as Jordi Savall calls it - from the 18th century. Antonio Vivaldi and Georg Philipp Telemann were among the main composers of such pieces. However, Savall and his ensemble start with the most famous piece from the pen of Jean-Féry Rebel, Les Elémens which is called a symphonie de danse. Its novelty was especially the opening movement, Le cahos which depicts the chaos before the various elements, "subject to invariable laws, took their prescribed place in the natural order", as the preface says. It opens with a chord consisting of all the notes of the D minor scale. The next movements illustrate the four elements: earth, water, air and fire. Although it is basically scored for strings and bc in four parts, there are indications that wind instruments, such as flutes, oboes and bassoons, may be used in some of the movements. That is also the way it is performed here.

The second disc includes more music by French composers. Marin Marais is mainly known as composer of pieces for his own instrument, the viola da gamba, but he also wrote several operas, among them Alcyone which was first performed in 1706. It was the first performance in France in which a double bass participated. Marais also added percussion. This was used, for instance, in Tempête, the depiction of a storm. It had quite an impact as this piece "soon gave rise in the operatic repertoire to earthquakes, storms and 'infernal noise'" (Jérôme de la Gorce). Such kind of tone paintings were much more common in the operas of Jean-Philippe Rameau. They beat witness to the increasing dramatic character of operas in his time, and especially his own. Instrumental music was not just an opportunity for a ballet anymore, it was fully integrated in the dramatic discourse and took a role in the description of the events. The programme includes five extracts from three different operas, among them Orage et air pour Borée from Les Indes Galantes and Tonnerre from Hippolyte et Aricie.

Vivaldi closes the first disc. The most famous specimens of descriptive music in his oeuvre are the four violin concertos known as Le quattro stagioni. But he also composed several other concertos with nicknames which refer to natural phenomena, such as a storm at sea. La Tempesta di mare is the name a concerto which has been preserved in several scorings. Here it is the version for transverse flute, strings and bc from the six concertos op. 10 which is performed, but the solo part is given to a recorder. Whereas Johann Sebastian Bach seems to have had little interest in musical illustration, his colleague Telemann was very keen to use musical means to depict situations, human characters and events. One of the best-known examples is the Overture in C, with the title Wasser-Music'/'Hamburger Ebb' und Fluth. This was one of the pieces which was performed in 1723 in Hamburg as part of the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the Admiralty of Hamburg. It is a sequence of dances which are given the names of characters from antique mythology. With musical means Telemann describes the phenomena which are connected to the sea and Hamburg harbour life.

Lastly we turn to England and to the only piece from the 17th century. Matthew Locke wrote the incidental music to a play by Shakespeare, The Tempest. The English playwright John Dryden considered it the first English opera. Locke shared his view: he published his music in a volume entitled 'The English Opera'. His contributions include the First and Second Musick, the Curtain Tune, the four act or interval tunes and the Canon 4 in 2 which ended the work. Only the Curtain Tune can be considered an example of descriptive music.

Locke's music is scored for four-part strings and bc. Savall added oboes and percussion. The addition of the latter is superfluous; I can't see any reason for it. The use of oboes is also highly questionable; at the time Locke composed his music the oboe was not known in England. It is just one of the liberties of Savall's interpretations. Part of these liberties are also the result of putting together a programme of very different pieces which partly ask for different instruments. All the music is performed here with an orchestra of an Italian line-up, with a string body of violins, violas and cellos. But in Locke's England the cello was very rare; until the end of the 17th century the viola da gamba was the most common string bass. In France those parts which in Germany and Italy were played by the viola were divided over three different instruments: haute-contre de violon, taille de violon and quinte de violon. At some time during the 18th century the latter disappeared. However, there can be little doubt that the use of a viola is not appropriate in French music.

In several pieces Savall makes use of a wind machine. This was common practice in descriptive pieces in operas, and they are rightly used here in the pieces by Marais and Rameau. However, Savall also uses it in the seventh movement from Telemann's Overture: Der stürmende Aeolus, referring to the ruler of the winds in Greek mythology. But Telemann's overtures were not written for performances in the theatre but rather in domestic surroundings. This particular overture was performed at a special occasion which did not take place in the theatre either. From this perspective its addition is simply wrong.

Another problem is the very reverberant acoustic where the concert which was recorded for this set of discs took place. A church is not the ideal venue for this kind of music, not even if it is filled with people. This goes at the cost of transparency and a clear articulation, especially in the fast movements. In Vivaldi's concerto the balance between the recorder and the strings is less than ideal. This is also due to the relatively large number of strings; in a piece like this a line-up of one instrument per part would be ideal.

I don't want to be too negative; some movements have been done pretty well. But all in all I am disappointed about these performances. The opening of Rebel's Les Elémens is too restrained; I have heard performances which had much more impact. Too often I find the playing rather lacklustre; Savall also recorded a large suite from Marais' Alcyone - with the 'correct' instruments - which is far better than what we get here. The disc ends with the Contredanse très vive from Rameau's Zoroastre. As he always does in this particular piece Savall has asked the audience to clap to the rhythm. I hate that.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Le Concert des Nations

CD Reviews