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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643 - 1704): "Stances du Cid - Airs de cour"

Cyril Auvity, haute-contre

rec: May 2015, Franc-Warêt (B), Eglise Saint-Rémi
Glossa - GCD 923601 (© 2016) (59'32")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER: Ah! qui'ils sont courts les beaux jours (H 442); Amour, vous avez beau redoubler mes alarmes (H 445); Auprès du feu l'on fait amour (H 446); Non, non je ne l'aime plus (H 455); Rendez-moi mes plaisirs (H 463); Rentrez trop indiscrets soupirs (H 464); Retirons-nous, fuyons (H 465); Ruisseau qui nourris dans ce bois (H 466); Sans frayeur dans ce bois (H 467); Stances du Cid (H 457-459); François COUPERIN (1668-1733): L'Espagnole (sonade: gravement, air. gracieusement; passacaille) [2]; L'Impériale (chaconne) [2]; La Piémontaise (sonade: gravement, vivement et marqué, air) [2]; Michel LAMBERT (1610-1696): Ma bergère est tendre et fidèle; Vos mépris chaque jour [1]; Jacques MOREL (fl c1700-1749): Tombeau de Mademoiselle

Sources: [1] Michel Lambert, Ayres a une, ii, iii et iv voix avec la basse continue, 1689; [2] François Couperin, Les nations: sonades et suites de simphonies en trio, 1726

Léonor de Récondo, Charles-Étienne Marchand, violin; Elisa Joglar, cello; Marc Wolff, lute; Iabelle Sauveur, harpsichord

Every time a disc with music by Charpentier lands on my desk I am looking forward to listening to it. His oeuvre is of a consistently high level, with hardly any weakness in it. It is especially interesting in the way he mixes French and Italian elements. The present disc is a nice addition to the discography as it sheds light on a part of Charpentier's output which is probably not as well known as it deserves to be.

The title refers to the Stances du Cid but in fact these are just three songs, and pretty short ones at that. They belong to the genre of the air de cour but are a little different from the mainstream repertoire in this genre in that they are a cycle and are more dramatic in content and character than most. Vincent Borel, in his liner-notes, writes that they call to mind Monteverdi's Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda but that seems a bit exaggerated. The very fact that these three songs - less than six minutes together - move from recitative to aria "by means of a form of development which is close to opera" seems not enough to justify this comparison. But they certainly attest to the Italian influence in Charpentier's oeuvre which was the effect of his studies in Rome where he became acquainted with the oeuvre of Giacomo Carissimi.

The genre of the air de cour was not new. This term was used for the first time by the music publisher Adrian Le Roy who in 1571 published the collection Livre d'air de cours miz sur le luth: songs for voice and lute. He explained that he had adapted simple songs which were known as vaudeville or voix de ville. Until the end of the century various collections of airs de cour were published, but these were all polyphonic. However, they were different from the chansons which were written earlier in that they were simpler, strophic and homophonic. That allowed the text to be more clearly understandable.

In the 17th century the air de cour developed into one of the main genres of musical entertainment at the French court in the first half of the 17th century. Some composers who contributed to this genre are still well-known, such as Puerre Guédron, Antoine Boësset, Etienne Moulinié and Michel Lambert. These airs were mostly scored for a solo voice and lute or basso continuo. Sometimes they included a ritornello for instruments. The texts - always in French - were very different in content: "The range of emotions embraced in these airs involved the serious, depressed, bawdy, high-spirited or even the coquettish (...)", Borel writes. That is reflected by the various names given to airs de cour, such as airs sérieux and airs à boire. Some songs include Arcadian elements, represented by shepherds and shepherdesses (Charpentier, Auprès de feu l'ont fait l'amour) which connects them to the Italian chamber cantata which was to become very popular at the end of the 17th century.

In contrast to the Italian chamber cantata the texts of the airs de cour were mostly written by some of the best poets of the time, such as Molière, Jean de La Fontaine, Thomas Corneille and Pierre Corneille. The latter is the author of the Stances du Cid. They are included in Le Cid, tragicomedy in five acts which received its first performance in 1637. Charpentier's settings were published in 1681 in the newspaper Mercure galant. Several of Charpentier's airs are based on a basso ostinato, such as Ruisseau que nourrit dans ce bois and Sans frayeur. Non, non je ne l'aime plus is one of the more dramatic songs which has the form of a rondeau; the third time the opening phrase returns it has a different text.

The catalogue of Charpentier's compositions includes about thirty airs de cour; twelve of them are performed here which makes this disc a substantial addition to the catalogue. The programme is extended with some songs by other composers, probably in order to put Charpentier's songs into their historical perspective. I already mentioned Michel Lambert as one of the main composers of airs de cour. Vos mépris chaque jour is his most famous song and has been recorded many times; Ma bergère is another song based on a basso ostinato. Far less known is Jacques Morel who was a pupil of Marin Marais. As the heydays of the air de cour were in the 17th century Morel's Tombeau de Mademoiselle has to be considered a late specimen of this genre, written at a time when France had already been conquered by the Italian chamber cantata, a genre to which Morel himself contributed. It is a highly emotional song in rondeau form, opening with the phrase: "Be moved, o great Gods, by my sorrowful utterances".

The songs are performed here by Cyril Auvity who is labelled an haute-contre. The role of this type of voice can probably be compared to that of the castrato in Italy. It was often the type of voice for which important roles in operas were written. Songs for solo voice with basso continuo can basically be performed by any type of voice but some of Charpentier's songs are marked with an "A" in the work-list in New Grove, referring to the alto voice. In French music this has to be interpreted as an haute-contre, and this is also the scoring of the three Stances du Cid. It is very likely that Charpentier has performed them himself as he was an haute-contre. Auvity sings well; the dramatic character of some songs is well conceived and the lighter pieces also receive good performances. Some songs include pretty low notes; fortunately Auvity's low register is well developed. However, in some songs he uses too much vibrato which is regrettable and historically untenable. Equally regrettable is the modern French pronunciation. It is really time historical pronunciation becomes the standard in 17th- and 18th-century secular repertoire as it is in sacred music.

The addition of some instrumental music can be useful in order to bring some relaxation and variety. But I am not so happy with the choice of extracts from François Couperin's Les Nations. It makes sense in that he - like Charpentier - was an advocate of the mixture of French and Italian elements. But the isolation of single movements - some of them last a little over one minute - is rather unsatisfying and breaks the coherence of the respective pieces. It would have been preferable to play independent pieces which are not part of a larger composition, for instance some of Lully's Trios pour le coucher du roi. They would well fit into the programme as he was a contemporary of Charpentier - and his main opponent - and a son-in-law of Michel Lambert. But I am also unimpressed by the playing of the ensemble. It is a bit one-dimensional and bland; the music never really comes to life.

So the main attraction of this disc is the performance of Charpentier's airs de cour. Let's hope this part of his output will become better known.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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