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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643 - 1704): Les Arts Florissans

Ensemble Marguerite Louise
Dir: Gaétan Jarry

rec: July 2017, Versailles
Château de Versailles Spectacles - CVS001 (© 2018) (59'23")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

La Couronne de Fleurs (H 486) (exc); Les Arts Florissans (H 487)

Cécile Achille*, Maïlys de Villoutreys*, Cécile Madelin, Juliette Perret, Virginie Thomas*, dessus; Myriam Arbouz, Anaïs Bertrand*, Aliénor Feix, bas-dessus; François-Olivier Jean, Lancelot Lamotte, Jonathan Spicher*, haute-contre; Safir Behloui*, Thibaut Lenaerts, GFuillaume Zabé, taille; Virgile Ancely*, Laurent Collobert, Christophe Gautier, David Witczak*, basse-taille [*solo]
Anna Besson, Nicolas Bouils, Marion Hély, Julie Huguet, recorder; Sébastien Marq, recorder, transverse flute; Lucile Tessier, transverse flute; Emmanuel Resche, Théotime Langlois de Swarte, Sophie Iwamura, Fiona-Emilie Poupard, Sandrine Dupé, David Rabinovici, dessus de violon; Marie-Suzanne de Loye, basse de viole; Julie Dessaint, contrebasse de viole; Nadia Bendjaballah, timpani, percussion; [bc] Pierre-Augustin Lay, basse de violon; Robin Pharo, basse de viole; Marc Wolff, archlute; Ronan Khalil, harpsichord, organ; Gaétan Jarry, organ

During the 20th century several composers wrote music inspired by political events, such as the war in Vietnam or the Cuban revolution. However, 'political music' was not an invention of the 20th century. Especially in France, under the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King, a large part of the music written by the leading composers of the time, such as Jean-Baptiste Lully, was dedicated in some way or another to the monarch. Every opera was introduced by a prologue, in which the virtues of the Sun King were hailed. Events of the state were also taken as a reason to compose music: it is generally thought that the famous Te Deum by Marc-Antoine Charpentier was written at the occasion of the victory of France at Steinkerk, on 3 August 1692.

The present disc includes two works which are also find their origin in a political event. In October 1684, the Truce of Regensburg ended the war he had fought against the Holy Roman emperor Leopold I and the king of Spain, Charles II. Festivities were held in the spring and summer of 1685, after a very cold winter. In 1685 a number of celebrations took place, such as the performance of the Idylle de la Paix by Lully, on a text by Racine. Lully was something like the 'state composer' and it was part of his duties to provide the music for such occasions. Charpentier, on the other hand, was in the service of Marie de Lorraine, also known as Madame de Guise, and she commissioned two pieces from him to celebrate Louis's victories and the restoration of peace.

Les Arts Florissans is called an opera, but its original scoring was rather modest: six voices, two transverse flutes, two treble viols and basso continuo. It was certainly intended for a performance in the home of Madame de Guise, which explains the scoring. In this performance we hear a larger line-up, with solo voices, a choir of 18 voices and an orchestra which includes five flutes, two recorders, six violins, bassoon, bass viol, violone and percussion, as well as a basso continuo section with bass violin, bass viol, archlute and keyboard instruments. Gaétan Jarry, in his notes on the performance, states that he chose to perform the "augmented form", suggesting that this is a version from Charpentier's time. Unfortunately the liner-notes don't discuss this issue. I would like to know more about it. I have to say that it is rather odd to hear so many instruments, including percussion, in a movement as the air de violes at the end of Scène 1.

The pictures in the booklet show that the ensemble has given scenic performances of the two pieces on this disc. Whether that was the case when they were first performed is probably not known. Les Arts Florissans has a few dramatic moments. The story of the opera concerns the eponymous Arts (music, poetry, painting, architecture), shown flourishing under the beneficent and peaceful reign of Louis XIV, as they and a group of warriors become drawn into a dispute between the central characters of Peace (La paix) and Discord (La discorde). After a brief struggle in which Discord and his Furies gain the upper hand, Peace appeals to Jupiter to intervene on her behalf. Discord and his followers are chased back into Hades by a hail of thunderbolts, and Peace holds sway once more. In particular Scene 2 is quite dramatic, both in the vocal and the instrumental parts.

Whereas the author of the libretto of Les Arts Florissans has remained unknown, La Couronne des Fleurs is a setting of a text by Molière, with whom Charpentier worked closely in his early years. As Eglogue en Musique et en Danse it was meant as the prologue to Molière's play Le Malade imaginaire for performances in 1672. That was also the last time it was performed as in 1673, after the death of Molière, Jean-Baptiste Lully used his royal privilege to forbid any performance of Le Malade imaginaire. La Couronne de Fleurs is the revised version of that prologue. The central figure is Flora, the goddess of flower and vegetation, who has always been closely associated with spring. In this Pastorale she invites shepherds and shepherdesses to a contest. He or she who most eloquently sings about the deeds of Louis XIV will receive a crown of flowers. After several attempts the god Pan intervenes, stating that no poem is good enough to sing Louis' praise. The contest is cut short, and instead of the crown of flowers for the winner every participant receives one flower.

For some reasons we only get excerpts from this piece here. The entire work takes a little under 30 minutes, and this disc offers enough space for a complete performance (*). The decision to record only some excerpts is all the more disappointing, because the performances of both works is very good. In fact, as far as French music of this kind - opera and what is closely connected to it - is concerned, this is one of the best discs I have heard in recent years. The soloists, who also participate in the tutti sections, are excellent, and avoid the incessant vibrato which destroys so many performances. As a result the voices blend perfectly. The dramatic aspects also come off very well. The playing is first class. Unfortunately it is still common practice to use modern pronunciation.

Although I would have preferred a performance of these works in the original scoring, I have thoroughly enjoyed what is on offer here. Lovers of French baroque music should not miss this production.

(*) It was recorded complete by the Boston Early Music Festival Vocal & Instrumental Ensembles (CPO).

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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Ensemble Marguerite Louise

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