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"Cantates et Petits Macarons"

Natalia Kawalek-Plewniak, mezzo-sopranoa
Il Giardino d'Amore
Dir: Stefan Plewniak

rec: July 1 - 3, 2013, Zielonki, NNMP Church
Ëvoe Records - Ëvoe-002 (© 2015) (69'52")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I/P; lyrics - translations: E/D/I/P
Cover & track-list
Score Couperin
Score Marais
Score Monteclair
Score Rameau

Louis-Nicolas CLÉRAMBAULT (1676-1749): La Muse de l'Opéra ou les caractères lyriques, cantate à voix seule et simphoniea; François COUPERIN (1668-1733): Le Parnasse, ou l'Apothéose de Corelli - Grande Sonade en Trio; Marin MARAIS (1656-1728): Sonnerie de Ste-Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris [2]; Michel Pignolet DE MONTÉCLAIR (1667-1737): Le Retour de la Paix, cantate à voix seule et simphoniea [1]; Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764): Le berger fidèle, cantate à voix seul et simphoniea [3]

Sources: [1] Michel Pignolet de Montéclair, Cantates, premier livre, 1709 [2] Marin Marais, La gamme et autres morceaux de symphonie, 1723 [3] Jean-Philippe Rameau, Cantates françoises à voix seule avec simphonie ... livre premier, 1729-30

Gregorio Carraro, transverse flute; Pawel Gajewski, trumpet; Stefan Plewniak, Enrique Gomez Cabrero Fernandez, violin; Lucia Krommer, viola da gamba; Katarzyna Cichón, cello; Etienne Galletier, theorbo, guitar; Marco Vitale, harpsichord; Tomasz Sobaniec, timpani

"Cantatas and little macaroons" - that is not a very obvious title for a disc of baroque music. What have macaroons to do with music? The booklet even includes a recipe for macaroons. The answer comes from the liner-notes which open with a description of an imaginary afternoon in early 18th-century France, with a buffet, including "mounds of delicately flavoured macaroons" and "the sweet sounds of the violin virtuoso" coming through the doorway. These may have been the circumstances in which the cantatas and instrumental pieces on the present disc were performed.

However, the cantatas are a bit different from the chamber cantatas which are mostly performed and recorded. The most 'conventional' as it were is Rameau's cantata Le berger fidèle. The scoring for solo voice, two violins and bc points in the direction of a performance in the salon of a member of the Paris upper class. However, it was first performed in a public concert in 1728. The opera star Catherine-Nicole Le Maure sang this cantata at the Concert Français which Pierre Danican Philidor founded in 1727. It probably inspired Marc Minkowski (Archiv, 1996) to record this cantata with an orchestral accompaniment. Here it is performed in a more common line-up, with one instrument per part.

Only five years after the performance of this cantata Rameau made his debut as a composer of operas. He considered his cantatas as preparations for his writing of operas and this cantata is closer to opera than most chamber cantatas of his time. It depicts the grief of the shepherd Mirtil for his beloved Amaryllis and opens with a 'plaintive air'. In the ensuing recitative he expresses his wish to take his own life: "[A] lover should perish to save one he loves". The goddess Diana is so impressed by his love that she restrains him from killing himself and the cantata ends with a 'quick and gracious air' saying that the favours of "charming love" often "exceed our hopes". The arias depict the different moods of Amaryllis, not only in the vocal part but also the instrumental accompaniment.

The other two cantatas are far less known and are also operatic in nature. It is quite possible that these also have been performed in public concerts, considering their scoring. The programme opens with Le retour de la paix (The return of peace) by Michel Pignolet de Montéclair which is for voice and simphonie, the general name for an instrumental ensemble. In this cantata it includes a transverse flute, an oboe, a trumpet, two violins and bc. The inclusion of a trumpet is quite unusual but can easily be explained from this cantata's subject matter. It opens with a section which paints in lurid colours the horrors of war. The next sections which include a recitative and an aria further dwell on this subject. This part ends with an aria in which Peace is asked to "save the rest of us mortals". The singer is accompanied here by the strings, playing chords forte and staccato. The next section opens with the words: "But what sudden brightness! What shafts of light remove the horrors of these sad days!" The shift in mood is marked by the entrance of the transverse flute. The ensuing recitative describes how "amiable Peace has dissipated the storm". The cantata ends with an air des trompettes in which "this propitious day" is celebrated: "The terrible noise of arms no longer makes us weep". Here the violins are joined by oboe and trumpet.

Louis-Nicolas Clérambault was a prolific composer of cantatas; most of them were published in five books, printed between 1710 and 1726. La muse de l'Opéra dates from 1716 and was not published. This cantata is not only close to opera, it is about opera: it imitates scenes which were a fixed part of opera, such as Tempeste (storm), Sommeil (sleep) and a prélude infernal. These strongly contrasting scenes are depicted not only in the vocal part but also the instrumental parts. The instrumental scoring is remarkable: transverse flute, oboe, trumpet, drums, two violins, viola da gamba and bc. The first aria mentions "noisy trumpets" and here the oboe and the trumpet join the violins. The sixth section is a 'very tender aria' which addresses the birds: "You are treated far better than we, with you he [Love] is never jealous, deceitful, nor fickle". In this aria the transverse flute plays a major role and that is also the case in the next section which depicts Sleep. The closing aria states that opera is about illusions: "It is nothing but a pretty illusion that satisfies your wishes here. Oh! Aren't you happy to be deceived only to be amused?" This aria - and the cantata - end very abruptly.

The two pieces of chamber music seem very different from these cantatas. That is true in that they are not dramatic. However, they share with the cantatas their descriptive character as they depict situations or emotions. Marin Marais' Sonnerie de Ste-Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris imitates the bells of St Geneviève, a hill on the left bank of the Seine in Paris. The piece is founded on a three-note motif played on the viola da gamba. It has the form of a passacaglia: the violin weaves a virtuosic web over the repeated motif in the bass.

The title of François Couperin's Le Parnasse, ou L'Apothéose de Corelli also suggests a descriptive piece. That is emphasized by the titles of the various movements, such as "Corelli at the feet of Parnassus asks the Muses to take care of him" and "Corelli is full of enthusiasm, caused by the waters of Hippocrene, and his company moves on". However, as Philippe Beausant writes in his liner-notes to Ricercar Consort's recording of both of Couperin's Apothéoses (Mirare, 2011), "one has the impression that the titles Couperin gave each of the movements were added only later, so 'pure' does this music appear". That said, when the title of the fifth movement says "Corelli, exhausted by all his enthusiasm, falls asleep; his troupe plays a gentle lullaby" this is clearly illustrated in the music and it is in notable contrast to the next movement: "The Muses wake Corelli up, leading him to Apollo". Despite the differences between these pieces and the cantatas they fit well into this programme which appeal to the listeners' imagination.

The performers are new to me. I am happy to say that they make quite an impression here. Natalia Kawalek-Plewniak specializes in historical performance practice and has also considerable experience in opera. Both qualities come to the fore in her performances. Her singing is stylish in the way she treats the text - unfortunately in modern French - and her application of ornamentation and dynamic differentiation. Essential here is that she has the theatrical flair these cantatas require. She fully engages in the material from the word go: in the opening of the first cantata she immediately hits the mark. This and the other two cantatas receive outstanding performances. Also full marks to the instrumentalists who thoroughly explore the dramatic features of the instrumental scores. Marais' Sonnerie has an electrifying effect, which without any doubt is exactly what the composer aimed at, and Couperin's sonata is played with the intimacy which this piece needs.

Ëvoe Records is Stefan Plewniak's own label. With his ensemble he has made two further discs which I haven't heard. I hope to hear them one day because with this disc these artists have left an impressive visiting card. I am looking forward to further recordings.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Il Giardino d'Amore

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