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"Médée furieuse (Medea's fury)"

Stéphanie d'Oustrac, soprano
rec: August 2007, Paris, Chapelle Notre-Dame du Bon Secours & Cité de la Musique (Amphitéâtre)
Ambroisie - AM 157 (© 2008) (72'28")

Michel de LA BARRE (1675-1745): Suite in e minor: prélude, passacaille; Nicolas BERNIER (1665-1734): Médée, cantata [2]; Louis-Nicolas CLÉRAMBAULT (1676-1749): Médée, cantata [3]; Jacques DUPHLY (1715-1789): La Forqueray; Médée [4]; Domenico GABRIELLI (1651-1690): Balletti, op. 1: gigha, 2 largos, sarabanda [1]; Giovanni Antonio GIANNETTINI (Medea in Atene, opera: Alati Corsieri; Amare e tacere; Da gl'antri di morte; Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687): Thésée, tragédie en musique (LWV 51): Ah, ah, faut-il me venger; Dépit mortel; Gautier DE MARSEILLE (1642-1696): Suite in c minor, op. posth. 1707: symphonie; Suite in g minor: prélude, symphonie en duo

(Sources: [1] Gabrielli, Balletti, gighe, correnti, alemande, e sarabande, op. 1, 1684; [2] Bernier, Cantates françoises ou musique de chambre, 1703; [3] Clérambault, Cantates françoises à I. et II. voix avec simphonie et sans simphonie, Livre I, 1710; [4] Duphly: Troisième Livre de Pièces de Clavecin, 1758 )

Héloïse Gaillard, recorder, oboe; Gilone Gaubert-Jacques, violin; Anne-Marie Laslard, viola da gamba; Violiane Cochard, harpsichord, organ

In baroque operas and cantatas mythological characters play key roles. One of the most famous is certainly Orpheus, but Medea, who is the central character in this recording, also regularly appeared in vocal music of the 17th and 18th century. The fascination with this character didn't disappear with the end of the baroque era, as Cherubini's opera Médée testifies.

Medea appears in a play by the Greek author Euripides. From this we know that she was the princess of Colchis and the granddaughter of the sun. She is married to Jason, whom she helped to steal the Golden Fleece. But Jason leaves her for Glauce, and this leads to Medea's fury which is so often portrayed in operas and cantatas. That is also the case in the compositions chosen for the programme by the ensemble Amarillis. It is a combination of rather well-known pieces - in particular Clérambault's cantata has been recorded a number of times - and unknown material. To the last category belongs Medea in Atene, an opera by the Venetian composer Giovanni Antonio Giannettini (or, as the tracklist says, Gianettini). Also recorded for the first time is the cantata Médée by Nicolas Bernier. The combination of Italian and French music may seem a bit strange, but let us not forget Lully was Italian by birth, and Bernier had studied in Italy and, just like Clérambault, was strongly influenced by the Italian style.

Even so, as interesting as the concept of this disc may be, the way it has been worked out is not very convincing, nor are the performances really satisfying. I have reviewed several of the recordings by this ensemble recently, and in most cases I wasn't very impressed. There are several reasons for this.

As I already indicated I am not happy with the way the concept has been worked out. There are many more cantatas about Medea which could have been chosen in addition to the two performed here. Instead arias from two operas are performed. This is rather problematic, especially as in 17th-century operas - in particular French - the mostly rather short 'arias' are much more integrated in the drama as a whole than arias in, for instance, Handel's operas. Taking arias out of their context doesn't do them much justice. Another problem here is that the singer is accompanied by two melody instruments, which can't replace an orchestra, especially in the most dramatic arias.

This leads to another issue of this recording: the scoring. Performers of baroque music have quite a lot of freedom in this respect. Composers often left the choice of instruments to the performers, and even when an instrument is indicated this doesn't necessarily exclude other instruments. But that freedom isn't unlimited. Here, for instance, the use of a recorder in some of Domenico Gabrielli's pieces is very questionable, as Gabrielli was a cellist by profession, and his Balletti opus 1 are scored for strings. Simply wrong from a historical point of view is the use of an oboe in extracts from Giannettini's opera: this work had its premiere in 1675, but in Italy the oboe only gradually started to be used in the last decade of the 17th century. Only after the turn of the century the instrument became more fashionable in Italy.

It was in France that the oboe was playing an important role in the time Lully wrote his operas and still when Clérambault composed the cantata performed here. But that doesn't mean it can be used indiscriminately. The choice to use the oboe in Clérambault's cantata is debatable: it was mainly used in orchestral and chamber music, but not in chamber cantatas. It was quite common to use two instruments playing simultaneously or alternately, but the most usual combination was the violin and the transverse flute. Even stranger is the use of the recorder in this cantata: when it was written the recorder had already been overshadowed by the transverse flute, and it was certainly not used in chamber cantatas.

In some of the instrumental pieces the scoring is problematic too. Although Michel de La Barre was acting as a recorder player in the early stages of his career, after about 1700 he almost exclusively devoted his time to playing the transverse flute and composing for this instrument. It is therefore debatable to use the oboe and the recorder respectively alongside the violin in the instrumental movements which precede and follow Bernier's cantata. Although I can understand the decision to play some instrumental pieces to bring some variety into the programme, it is very unlucky that they are played in between the arias from Lully's and Giannettini's operas.

As far as the interpretations are concerned, I wasn't very positive about this ensemble on previous occasions, and I don't see a reason to change my view that the musicians aren't able to bring real life to the music they are performing. The instrumental performances are mostly rather flat. That is the case in most of Clérambault's cantata - Bernier's cantata fares better in comparison - but also in Giannettini's arias. In particular the second of the three is a quite expressive piece, but the players don't make much of it. And Duphly's harpsichord pieces are much more captivating than one would guess from how they are played here.

In comparison Stéphanie d'Oustrac does better and gives some idea of what this repertoire is like. But I am sure more can be made of it, and I certainly don't like the frequent vibrato she makes use of. Taking everything into account I find it difficult to recommend this disc. The only reason to do so is the unknown repertoire: I definitely would like to hear more of Giannettini, and Bernier's cantata is a very nice piece. If only the performances had been better...

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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