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Louis-Nicolas CLÉRAMBAULT (1676 - 1749): "Cantates françaises"

Reinoud Van Mechelen, tenor
A Nocte Temporis

rec: March 2017, Sint-Truiden (B)
Alpha - 356 (© 2017) (72'23")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Apollon (Cantate pour le Roy) [3]; L'Amour, guéri par l'Amour [4]; Le jaloux [1]; Pirame, et Tisbé [2]

Sources: [1] Cantates françoises a I. et II. voix, avec simphonie, et sans simphonie, Livre premier, 1710; [2] Cantates françoises mellées de simphonies, Livre IIe, 1713; [3] Cantates françoises mellées de simphonies, Livre IIIe, 1716; [4] Cantates françoises mellées de simphonies, Livre IVe, 1720

Anna Besson, transverse flute; Emmanuel Resche, violin; Myriam Rignol, viola da gamba; Benjamin Alard, harpsichord

Louis-Nicolas Clérambault is one of the best-known representatives of French baroque music. However, it is little-known that he was not the only musical member of his family. He was part of a kind of musical dynasty, comparable with the Couperins. "He was one of a family line whose members had served the kings of France since the 15th century (...)", according to New Grove, which also mentions that Louis-Nicolas' father, Dominique, was one of the famous 24 violons du roi from 1670 to 1682. It seems likely that he was the first teacher of his son, who was a child prodigy. It is said that Louis-Nicolas composed a grand motet at the age of 13. He was trained at the organ and the violin, and it is in his capacity as an organist that he has become best-known. His main teacher at the organ was André Raison; furthermore he studied composition and singing with Jean-Baptiste Moreau. For most of his life he was in the service of the court. Around 1714 he became organist of St Sulpice and of the Maison Royale de Saint-Cyr, near Versailles, succeeding Guillaume Gabriel Nivers in both positions. He was generally considered one of France's most brilliant organists. As a composer of organ music he left only one book, including two suites.

In comparison his contributions to the genre of the secular cantata are much more important. This genre had become quite popular after the turn of the century, when the influence of Italian music started to manifest itself and composers were not afraid to incorporate elements of the Italian style in their own compositions. The violin was taken more and more seriously as an instrument in art music, and played a significant role in cantatas, as those by Clérambault. Between 1710 and 1726 he published five books of cantatas and a number of separate cantatas, bringing the total at 25. Some of them have become quite famous, such as Orphée, Médée and Pirame et Thisbé. These belong among the most dramatic pieces; on the other end of the scale we find simpler works, such as La musette.

The French music chronicler Evrard Titon du Tillet stated: "Clérambault was known for the expert manner in which he played the organ; but what added most to his reputation was his wonderful talent for cantatas, where he excelled; he had the honour of performing them before Louis XIV, when His Majesty heard them with pleasure: this prince had several cantata texts given the composer, which he set to muisc, and which were performed in the apartment of Madame de Maintenon (...). The King was very satisfied with them and appointed him Superintendent of the Private Concerts of Madame de Maintenon".

But the cantata rose to its status as one of the main forms of secular vocal music, when the works by Clérambault and other composers were performed in the salons of the higher echelons of society. In addition they were part of the repertoire at the Concert Spirituel, the concert series which was founded in 1725. Clérambault's cantatas were admired for the way he mixed French and Italian elements. This was the ideal of the time, as his colleague Jean-Baptiste Morin expressed in the preface to his first book of cantatas (1706): "I have done all that I can to retain the sweetness of our French style of melody, but with greater variety in the accompaniments, and employing those tempi and modulations characteristic of the Italian cantatas." A particular feature of French cantatas, which we also find in Clérambault, is the inclusion of obbligato parts for instruments, especially the transverse flute and the violin. They usually participate in the airs, but sometimes also take part in the recitatives. Their involvement is indicated in the addition of avec simphonie in the titles of cantatas. Sometimes a cantata includes just one instrumental part, and sometimes two; the choice of instrument(s) is mostly left to the interpreters. When two instruments are involved, they sometimes play colla parte.

The vocal scoring was mostly for solo voice, usually soprano. However, it seems that there is no basic objection to a performance at a lower register, such as the tenor. Only few cantatas are for two or three voices. This already indicates that the connection between opera and cantata is not that straightforward. Some cantatas had a subject which brings us into the world of Arcadia; in the present programme that is the case in L'Amour guéri par l'Amour, whose main character is the shepherd Thyrsis. Characters which appear in operas are Médée and Orphée. These cantatas are for one voice, which takes different roles, that of the character in the title and that of the narrator, which sometimes also quotes opposing characters. From that perspective it is too simple to describe chamber cantatas as pocket-size operas.

The most dramatic piece in the present programme is Pirame, et Tisbé, whose subject is taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Here the solo voice is supported by a simphonie of transverse flute and violin, playing either separate parts, such as in the closing arias, or colla parte, as in the instrumental episode which prepares the first recitative. In between are arias with one instrumental part, played either by the flute or the violin. In the first aria Pyramus expresses his love for Thisbé; its character is indicated as gracieusement (graceful). This is followed by three recitatives of Thisbé, the second of which has the addition lentement, et marqué (slow and marked). When Pyramus thinks his beloved is dead, he sings a lament (lentement), followed by a dramatic prélude: "Come, hideous monsters, my justified grief dares to brave your fury". In the next section, which has no title, but is in fact a recitative, he kills himself, and when Thisbé finds him, she does the same. The cantata ends with an air, gracieusement et gai.

As I already wrote. L'Amour, guéri par l'Amour reflects the world of Arcadia. It is about Thyrsis, complaining about the inconstancy of Clymene. In the first aria he addresses the nightingale (Philomela); the air has the indication très lent, fort tendrement (very slow, most tenderly). The instruments are violin and flute, the latter undoubtedly representing the nightingale. But then a new beauty dispels the memory of Clymene. The title of this cantata sums up its tenor: "Love healed by Love".

Not very different is Le jaloux, which includes no action, but is a depiction of jealousy. This explains this cantata's different structure. It comprises five airs; there is just one recitative, between the second and the third air. The protagonist, who has no name, complains about the fact that Iris, whom he is in love with, is courted by a soldier. The cantata ends with a repeat of the opening aria. The obbligato instrument is a violin.

Operas often included a tribute to the Sun King. Clérambault's third book of cantatas also includes such a tribute, in the form of a 'cantata for the King': Apollon, among others god of the sun. The ballet in 1653, with which Cardinal Mazarin wanted to present the young Louis XIV and in particular to establish his position in relation to possible threats, ended with the appearance of the sun god Apollo, danced by Louis himself. Hence his nickname: the Sun King. However, this cantata also expresses the longing for peace, as in particular the last years of Louis's reign were overshadowed by war and famines. It is about a shepherd, seated on the banks of the Seine, who sings his lament, then falls asleep 'full of his reverie'. His eyes are struck by lightning during his slumbers; Apollo appears to him and announces the arrival of peace and its blessings, and the triumph of the 'mighty Master of France'. The god then spirits the shepherd away so that he may hear the Muses extol the glories of Louis XIV (booklet). This cantata probably has one obbligato instrumental part, as in this performance the violin and the flute always play colla parte. In the first aria, preceded by a simphonie and a recitative, the flute is on its own, playing an instrumental introductiom which leads to a strongly expressive aria, with the indication fort tendre et lent (very tender and slow). It has a dacapo structure, and includes a marked contrast between the two sections. The second recitative turns into an air. Its text - "A distant sound of blaring trumpets grew sweeter and blended with the tenderest musettes" - is illustrated by the violin's playing piano and making use of double stopping, the latter probably meant to imitate the musette.

Clérambault is one of the most prominent composers of chamber cantatas of the early 18th century in France, but only a few of these are really well-known. In this recording the most familiar have been omitted; the only cantata which is pretty well-known is Pirame, et Tisbé. The others may well appear here for the first time on disc. Anyway, this disc is a substantial addition to the discography. It is hard to imagine better performances than are delivered here by Reinoud Van Mechelen and his ensemble. He often sings as an haute-contre, which indicates that his high register is well developed, but his middle and low registers are just as strong and stable, which is vital in particular in the more dramatic cantatas or episodes. He also uses his dynamic possibilities in the interest of expression, for instance in the air 'Souffrez, plaintive Philomele' (L'Amour guéri par l'Amour). His diction is excellent, and I note with great satisfaction his use of historical pronunciation, which is still rather rare in this kind of repertoire. The members of his ensemble substiantally contribute to the success of this disc. The tender and intimate episodes come off just as well as the more dramatic ones.

This disc is a real treasure, which deserves the attention of any lover of French baroque music.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Reinoud Van Mechelen
A Nocte Temporis

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