musica Dei donum
Michel Pignolet de MONTÉCLAIR (1667 - 1737): "Cantates à voix seule"
Emma Kirkby, soprano
rec: Feb 2010, Länna Kyrkan (Sweden)
BIS - CD-1865 (© 2011) (70'11")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & tracklist
La Mort de Didona ;
La Morte di Lucreziaab ;
Le Retour de la Paixab ;
Le Triomphe de la Constancec ;
Pan et Syrinxa 
 Cantates, premier livre, c1709;
 Cantates, second livre, c1716;
 Cantates, troisième livre, 1728
Ingrid Seiferta, Richard Gwiltb, violin;
William Huntc, Charles Medlam, viola da gamba;
Steven Devine, harpsichord
The chamber cantata was one of the most popular genres of the baroque era, particularly in Italy and France. The form was more or less fixed by Alessandro Scarlatti; cantatas usually consisted of two pairs of recitative and (dacapo) aria. The scoring was mostly for one voice and basso continuo; only now and then melody instruments were added, preferably violin(s), but sometimes also a recorder or a transverse flute. It was well after 1700 that French composers started to write cantatas as only then they felt free enough to demonstrate their liking of the Italian style.
They didn't follow the Italian model slavishly, though. Most cantatas were written for one or two voices avec simphonie. The word simphonie referred to a group of instruments of any kind, like the violin, the flute, the recorder or the oboe, plus basso continuo. In these cantatas by Montéclair we find parts for one and two violins and an obbligato part for the viola da gamba. The instruments also play a more prominent role in French cantatas than in their Italian counterparts. Some cantatas begin with a short instrumental introduction, and in Montéclair's Pan et Syrinx they play a short symphonie in the middle. In French cantatas instruments also participate in the illustration of the storyline and the depicting of the text. Several cantatas by Montéclair contain accompanied recitatives, something you seldom find in Italian cantatas. Some texts mention instruments like trumpet, horn or bagpipes. As this kind of cantata was performed in the intimate surroundings of the salons of the aristocracy and higher bourgeoisie there was no place for such instruments. Therefore it was the duty of violins or flutes to imitate them. On this disc the violins imitate trumpets and bagpipes in Le Retour de la Paix and the horn in Pan et Syrinx is imitated by the solo violin. In Le Triomphe de la Constance two viole da gamba depict the sound of bagpipes.
Instruments are also used to express the emotion in recitatives and arias. The most striking example is the recitative 'Di mortale sudor' from La morte di Lucretia, in which they play an introduction to the most intense passage, when Lucretia says farewell to the world and dies. This episode contains some strong dissonances, and on Lucretia's last notes all the instruments keep silent. It is the most dramatic moment of this whole disc, and shows that not all French cantatas are devoid of emotional depth.
These cantatas are all outstanding compositions in which Montéclair shows his skills in setting a text to music. The subjects are usually taken from mythology, something the listeners of his days were fully acquainted with. It is quite possible that these stories had some political and social connotations as well, something which will mostly escape modern audiences. Even without that kind of knowledge these cantatas can and should be thoroughly enjoyed, in particular when they receive such fine performances as by Emma Kirkby and London Baroque. Only sometimes I found Ms Kirkby's voice a bit too sharp-edged, like in the aria 'Fille du ciel' from Le retour de la Paix. But that same characteristic is highly suitable in the 'Air des Trompettes' at the end of this cantata which is brilliantly sung. On the whole I have nothing but admiration for her expressive performances. Her delivery is perfect as always, and her application of ornaments is stylish and technically impeccable. London Baroque is in fine form too, with colourful performances of the instrumental parts. Ingrid Seifert deserves special mention for her playing of the mute violin in Pan et Syrinx.
Nobody who likes French baroque music should miss this disc.
Johan van Veen (© 2011)