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CD reviews

"Music of French Masters"

{oh!} Orkiestra Historyczna
Dir: Martyna Pastuszka

rec: Oct 23, 2015 (live), Katowice, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra Chamber Halla; March 22, 2016 (live), Warsaw-Museum, Royal Castle (Great Assembly Hall)b
Dux - 1382 (© 2017) (64'57")
Liner-notes: E/P
Cover & track-list

André CAMPRA (1660-1744): Tancrède (suite)a; Michel CORRETTE (1705-1797): Concerto Le Phénix in Db; François COUPERIN (1668-1733): Sonate en quatuor La Sultanab; Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687): Armide (LWV 71) (suite)a; Marin MARAIS (1656-1728): Ariane et Bachus (suite)a

Maryna Pastuszka, Malgorzata Malke, Marzena Biwo, Adam Pastuszka, Violetta Szopa-Tomczyk, Katarzyna Szewczyk, violin; Dymitr Olszewski, Dominka Malecka, viola; Krzysztof Firlus, Justyna Krusz, viola da gamba; Bartosz Kokosza, cello; Mara Wilgos, lute, guitar; Anna Firlus, Marco Vitale, harpsichord; Jaroslaw Kopec, percussion

Whereas in the course of the 17th century Italian music strongly influenced composers across Europe, France developed its very own style. It was in particular the Italian-born Jean-Baptiste Lully, who was given the task of creating a truly French style, which could compete with what came from Italy. Opera played a key role; it was closely connected to the monarchy, and particularly suited to reflect the power of France and its ruler, Louis XIV. In Italy instrumental music came in various forms, from solo sonatas to music for an ensemble in five parts, and at the end of the century the concerto grosso was born, soon to be followed by music with solo parts for one or several instruments. This was different in France. Only at the end of the century solo and trio sonatas were written, which bear witness to the growing influence of the Italian style. Music for larger formations was almost exclusively connected to opera. In Amsterdam the publishers Heus, Pointel and Roger issued Lully's overtures and other instrumental pieces fom his operas between 1682 and 1715, and these editions had a strong influence on the dissemination of the French style across Europe, and in particular in Germany.

The present disc is devoted to French instrumental music from the decades around 1700, and it is no coincidence that three of the items are suites from compositions for the stage. It opens with the overture and six further instrumental movements from Lully's Armide, a tragédie-lyrique on a libretto by Philippe Quinault, based on Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata. It was first performed in the Paris Opéra in February 1686. The movements played here are a selection; the Capriccio Barockorchester recorded fourteen movements. The passacaille (here for inexplicable reasons called passacaglia) could not be omitted; passacailles and chaconnes - two of the main forms based on a basso ostinato - became a fixed part of any opera and of many instrumental works in France.

One of Lully's pupils was Marin Marais, who has become mainly known as a brilliant player of and composer for the viola da gamba. However, he also composed works for the stage; his best-known work in this deparment is Alcyone. Here we hear three instrumental movements from Ariane et Bachus, a tragédie en musique, which was first performed in Paris in 1696. The overture is omitted, but again we get a piece over a basso ostinato, here called chaconne.

The third operatic piece is from the pen of André Campra, who was one of the most famous composers in France in the first half of the 18th century. His music shows strong influence of the Italian style and early in his career he showed his interest in opera. He began ecclesiastical studies in 1678, and in 1681, when he was at Aix, he was threatened with dismissal for having participated in theatrical performances without authorization. In the 1680s he acted as maître de chapelle in Arles and maître de musique in Toulouse. In 1694 he was given four month's leave in Paris, but did not return to Toulouse. That year he was appointed maître de musique at Notre Dame cathedral. However, the attraction of opera was too strong. In 1697 L'Europe Galante, his first opéra-ballet, was performed. The clergy's opposition to the stage was the reason Campra tried to hide his involvement in operatic performances. But as his forays into the operatic scene were successful he decided to leave his post at the Notre Dame and to concentrate on opera. He took profit of the climate under the regency of Philippe of Orléans, when there was more openness towards opera and the influence of the Italian style. L'Europe Galante was followed in quick succession by other stage works; one of them was Tancrède, a tragédie en musique, which was first performed in 1702. Like Lully's Armide, the opera's libretto was based on Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata. The suite played here comprises the overture and four airs. No passacaille or chaconne here; the reason is simple: Tancrède does not include such a piece, probably a token of Campra's very own and Italian-influenced style.

François Couperin was one of the early advocates of the Italian style, which he showed in the 1690s by composing seven sonatas. However, as many French music lovers were vehemently opposed to anything Italian in music, he didn't dare to present them as compositions from his pen. In 1726 he published a collection of instrumental music under the title Les Nations. He included several of these sonatas, which were followed by suites in the French style. This bears witness to his ideal: the mixture of the best from two worlds, the so-called goûts réunis. La Sultane was probably written around 1693, but is different from the other sonatas of the 1690s, in that it is scored as a quartet, for two violins and two basses. However, in its structure it follows the Corellian sonata da chiesa: it has four movements - slow, fast, slow, fast - but with French titles.

The fifth work in the programme is of a much later date. Le Phénix is a piece which Michel Corrette, one of the most prolific composers of his time, published separately around 1738. It is a concerto for the remarkable scoring of four low instruments, either viole da gamba, cellos or bassoons. This was quite common practice at the time. Corrette, like his colleague Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, mostly wrote music for amateurs, and it was in the interest of salability to offer alternative scorings. At the time this piece was published the viola da gamba - probably more than anything else, the symbol of everything French - was still widely played, but was given increasingly strong competition by the cello. A mixture of several of these low instruments was probably also a legitimate option. The ensemble in this recording includes two viole da gamba and one cello. I am not sure which instrument plays the remaining part; it is probably performed by the harpsichord.

The orchestra with the rather curious name of {oh!}, which stands for Orkiestra Historyczna, comprises strings and a basso continuo section, plus percussion. I am not sure whether the latter is needed. It is used in the suite from Lully's Armide, but it is omitted in the recording of the Capriccio Barockorchester, which I already mentioned above. The use of percussion was mostly not specifically indicated. Therefore I am not saying that it is wrong to use it, but I would like to know, what were the considerations in this matter. The restriction to strings seems also legitimate, but it is unlikely that in Lully's time the orchestra only comprised strings. It was common practice to add oboes, which played colla parte with the violins. In this case the addition of oboes would have resulted in a more colourful and varied performance. Moreover, the orchestra is a specimen of the Italian-type baroque orchestra. The French orchestra consisted of only one violin, whereas the middle voices were performed by string instruments in three different pitches, whereas the bass was performed by the basse de violon. In the printed editions I mentioned at the start of this review the French scoring was adapted to the common line-up of court orchestras outside France. So what we have here is, so to speak, a 'foreign' approach to French orchestral music of the ancien régime. The playing is generally pretty good, although sometimes the sound tends to be a bit sharp. It is another reason why I would have liked the participation of oboes.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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{oh!} Orkiestra Historyczna

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