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Céline Scheen, sopranoa; Philippe Pierlot, viola da gambab; Eduardo Egüez, lute, theorboc

rec: May 2010, Bra-sur-Lienne, Église Assomption de la Sainte-Vierge
Flora - 2210 (59'09")
No liner-notes; lyrics - no translations

Monsieur BASTIDE: Arbres, rochersabc; Jean-Baptiste BESARD (c1567-after 1616): Beaux yeux qui voyes clairementac; Ou luis tu soleil de mon ameac; Mr DUBUISSON (1622/23-1680/81): Plainte sur la mort de M. Lambertabc; GAULTIER?: Préludeb; Nicolas HOTMAN (before 1614-1663): balletb; Constantijn HUYGENS (1596-1687): Graves tesmoinsabc; Quoi Clorindeac; Sérénadeabc; Michel LAMBERT (c1610-1696): Ah qui voudra desormais s'engagerabc; Par mes chants tristes et touchantsac; Vos mesprisac; Mr DE MACHY (?-?): Chaconneb; François RICHARD (c1580-1650): Amaranteac; Beaux yeuxac; Les yeux baignez de pleursac; Nicolas VALLET (c1583-after 1642): Fantaisyec; Fantaisye sur La Passameze D'italiec; 2 Préludesc

This disc is devoted to French music of the 17th century. It combines one of the most popular genres of vocal music, the air de cour with the two most distinguished instruments, the viola da gamba and the lute. The composers belong to the lesser-known from this period, with the exception of Michel Lambert, the most famous composer of airs de cour, whose Vos mepris is one of the most frequently recorded French songs of the baroque era. What was the leading thought behind the programme is anybody's guess as the disc comes without any liner-notes.

The air de cour is a secular song, mostly strophic, and written in France roughly between the mid-16th and the mid-17th century. A large part of this repertoire is scored for solo voice with lute. François Richard was one of the first to compose airs de cour with a basso continuo part. In 1614 he was ordinaire de la musique de la chambre et de la chapelle du roi and later worked as lute teacher to the choirboys of the royal chapel. He spent some time in England at the service of Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I. After his return he became compositeur de la musique de la chambre du roi.

The first airs on this disc are by Jean-Baptiste Bésard, who was from the previous generation. He was educated as lutenist but also studied law and medicine. He spent some time in Rome as well as in Germany. Here he worked most of his life, first in Cologne, then in Augsburg. In recordings he only turns up with pieces for lute. In the article on Bésard in New Grove no vocal music is mentioned. I would have liked to know when they were composed and how they have been preserved, but - as I wrote - there are no liner-notes to tell us.

Three pieces are by Constantijn Huygens - not French, even though his Christian name is spelled as Constantin in the track-list. He was one of the main poets of the Netherlands in its Golden Age, and also an important figure at the political scene of the Republic. He stood in contact with some of the main composers of his time. Only one collection of music has been preserved. It contains psalms on Latin texts, Italian arie and French airs, all for solo voice and basso continuo. Graves tesmoins and the Sérénade are most close to the French air de cour, but Quoy Clorinde, despite its French text, shows strong Italian influence, and is quite dramatic.

With Michel Lambert the genre of the air de cour reached its pinnacle. He was educated as a choirboy in the chapel of Gaston d'Orléans, the elder brother of King Louis XIII. In the 1640s he started to make a career as a singer in Paris, where he enjoyed the patronage of several people, among them Cardinal Richelieu. He married a singer, and it is probably also through his sister-in-law, also a famous singer, that he had access to the court. In 1651 Lambert performed as a dancer in ballets at the court of Louis XIV, who had become formally King in 1643. His first airs de cour were printed in collections published by Christophe Ballard in the 1650s. The first publication which was entirely devoted to his own airs appeared in 1660. From 1661 until his death he held the position of maître de la musique de la chambre du roi. How much he and his art were admired is expressed in the last piece on this disc, the Plainte sur la mort de M. Lambert, where he is called "l'auteur des plus beaux airs" (the author of the most beautiful airs). It is a very emotional piece and a worthy ending of this disc.

Constantijn Huygens is not the only Dutch connection on this disc. Nicolas Vallet was of French birth, but settled in the Netherlands in 1613 and worked here as a lutenist. He became famous for his psalm settings and psalm arrangements. Also remarkable are his lute quartets. Eduardo Egüez plays two préludes and the Fantasye sur La Passameze D'Italie. Another prélude is probably by Gaultier, whose Christian name is not given. There were various composers with that name, and it isn't always possible to establish the authorship of pieces handed down under that name. They were all lutenists, so it is surprising that this prélude is played on the viola da gamba. Is it an original piece for the gamba or does Pierlot perform a lute piece? The chaconne by Mr De Machy is definitely a gamba piece. Together with Sieur de Sainte Colombe he is considered one of the fathers of the French gamba school. He published the first collection with pièces de viole in France. He was a pupil of Nicolas Hotman, a gamba player of Flemish birth. It is ironic that his Ballet is placed between the vocal pieces by Constantijn Huygens. In 1659 Hotman sent Huygens pieces for the viol and for the theorbo which Huygens later ridiculed to Henry Du Mont.

This disc contains some of the finest and most expressive French music of the 17th century. It is hard to imagine a more suitable voice than Céline Scheen's. One doesn't hear such a beautiful voice that often, and her singing is exquisite and refined. He diction is immaculate, and she captures the character of every single piece perfectly. It is striking how she differentiates between the airs of Constantijn Huygens, using a wider dynamic range in the Italianate Quoy Clorinde than in the more French pieces. Lambert's Vos mépris may have been recorded many times, I can't think of a better performance than is given here, and it is miles ahead of Anne Sofie von Otter's caricatural 'interpretation'. The only regrettable thing is that she didn't decide to follow Stephan Van Dyck's example of using historical pronunciation. Eduardo Egüez and Philippe Pierlot deliver very fine performances of the instrumental pieces and give excellent support to Ms Scheen's voice. In Dubuisson's Plainte the unity of voice and instruments contributes to this piece receiving its maximum effect.

I strongly recommend this disc, even though liner-notes are missing and the lyrics are printed in French, without any translation.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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Eduardo Egüez

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