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"Si vous vouliez un jour ... Airs sérieux et à boire, Vol. 2"

Les Arts Florissants
Dir: William Christie

rec: April 2016, Paris, Philharmonie de Paris (Salle des Concerts)
Harmonia mundi - HAF 8509306 (© 2019) (61'23")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sébastien LE CAMUS (c1610-1677): Ah, que vous êtes heureux!a [4]; Laissez durer la nuit, impatiente Auroreb [4]; Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704): Amor vince ogni cosa, Pastoraletta 1a (H 492); Petite pastorale, Églogue des Bergers (H 479)cde [3]; Tristes déserts, sombre retraite (H 469)c [6]; Michel LAMBERT (1610-1696): Amour, je me suis plaint cent fois [5]; J'aimerais mieux souffrir la mort [5]; Laissez-moi soupirer importune raisonabe [5]; Sans murmurercde [5]; Vos mépris chaque jour me causent mille alarmesd [5]; Vos yeux adorablesbcde [5]; Vous avez trop d'appasacde [5]; Étienne MOULINIÉ (1599-1676): Amis, enivrons-nous du vin d'Espagne en France [2]; Enfin la beauté que j'adoree [1]; Guillot est mon ami;

Sources: [1] Pierre Ballard, ed., Airs de cour & de différents auteurs, 1624; [2] Étienne Moulinié, Airs à boire pour le retour de Monsieur, 1635; [3] Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Meslanges autographes, vol. II, c1675; [4] Sébastien Le Camus, Airs, à deux et trois parties, 1678; [5] Michel Lambert, Airs à une, II, III et IV parties avec la basse continue, 1689; [6] Jean-Baptiste-Christophe Ballard, ed., Meslanges de musique latine, françoise & italienne, 1728

Emmanuelle de Negri, sopranoa; Anna Reinhold, mezzo-sopranob; Reinoud Van Mechelen, haute-contrec; Cyril Auvity, tailled; Lisandro Abadie, basse
Florence Malgoire, Sue-Ying Koang, violin; Myriam Rignol, viola da gamba; Thomas Dunford, theorbo; William Christie, harpsichord

In 2016 Harmonia mundi released a disc of "Airs sérieux et à boire" by French composers of the 17th century. I welcomed it, not only because of the quality of the repertoire and its importance in 17th-century France, but also because only a very small part of it is known and performed. There was no indication that recording was to be the first of a series of discs with this repertoire. The release of two further volumes in recent years is a nice surprise. Here the second volume is reviewed; a review of the third volume will follow in due course.

In 17th-century France airs de cour were the main genre of secular music, certainly before the opera came into existence. As the term indicates, they were intended in the first place as courtly entertainment. There can be little doubt that such sungs were also popular among the highest echelons of society, in the salons of the aristocracy. The airs de cour had their origin in the 16th century, when polyphonic songs were written. In the 17th century, some of those songs were adapted to the then common combination of solo voice and lute (later basso continuo). In addition, composers started to write original songs for this scoring; among the most prolific composers of airs de cour were Michel Lambert, Pierre Guédron, Antoine Boësset and Etienne Moulinié.

In the middle of the 17th century, the air de cour started to change. The form of the air became increasingly popular and disseminated among lower echelons of society. Songs of different nature were written, and this resulted in the birth of some subgenres, such as the air sérieux, the air à boire, the air spirituel and the air de ballet. An interesting aspect of this genre is that is was also a link in the development of opera, as Thomas Leconte points out in his liner-notes. The present disc documents the various genres and also the link to opera, in particular with the inclusion of two short dramatic works by Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

The disc also documents an other aspect: the return to polyphony, which was in particular due to Michel Lambert. "All of Lambert's pieces on this recording are taken from his Airs à une, II, III et IV parties, published in 1689, two years after Lully's death. This final collection assembled by Lambert is in fact largely comprised of older songs, originally for two voices (melody part with basso continuo or with melodic bass line), that the composer has thoroughly reworked, adding inner parts (in contrapuntal or harmonic motion), to arrive at four- or five-part polyphony. Each air is preceded by a three-part instrumental ritornello, the playing of which is optional. While some of the two-part songs for voice and continuo still exhibit the monody typical of air sérieux dating from the 1650s, 1660s, and 1670s, the majority of them call for more varied forces than their initial versions, which are more reminiscent of the older polyphonic tradition."

Lambert's airs for solo voice are certainly the best-known and most frequently-performed specimens of the genre. One of them is Vos mépris chaque jour me causent mille alarmes. In comparison his songs for two to four voices are far less known, and that makes this disc all the more important. The other solo songs are taken from the oeuvre of other composers, such as Moulinié, Charpentier and Sébastien Le Camus. The latter is the least-known composer in the programme.

He is also the composer of two songs that are performed without any instrumental accompaniment: Guillot est mon ami and Amis, environs-nous de vin d'Espagne en France. The latter is an example of an air à boire, the former a harmonization of a traditional tune, which is an interesting link to popular culture in a genre that had its roots in courtly life.

Obviously, the subject of most songs is love. Interestingly, we often meet characters that are known from the world of Arcadia. This imaginary world was the ideal of aristocrats of the 17th and early 18th centuries, and this is expressed in the French airs sérieux, but also in the Italian chamber cantata. We see hear an interesting similarity between France and Italy. Despite the difference in style, they were not so much different in mentality.

From that angle the two dramatic pieces by Charpentier, although not strictly belonging to the genre of the air de cour, fit well into the programme. In the catalogue of his works they are ranked among the "pastorals, divertissements and operas". The Petite pastorale (H 479) is given the subtitle Le jugement de Pan in New Grove. It is about the bickering of two characters, Lysandre and Alcidon, about who sings best. It is Pan who is to pass judgment. The piece has been preserved incomplete; here we get two scenes, and I assume that it is all that has been left. "Beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, the first attempts at setting French plays integrally to music (...) consisted chiefly of juxtaposing several airs, loosely connected together by what would, in the skillful hands of Lully, become the recitative", Thomas Leconte states. This piece by Charpentier, which consists partly of pre-existing material, is part of this development. In the Pastoraletta, which is clearly inspired by Charpentier's time in Rome, he offered an "Italian-style alternative to French models", probably written for the establishment of Mademoiselle De Guise, whom Charpentier served for a number of years and who was a great lover of Italian music. The four scenes of this piece are divided among the programme.

I was not entirely satisfied with the performances in the first volume, as the two female singers used a bit too much vibrato. It is not absent here, but is has been more reduced, and overall it hardly has a negative impact on the performances. Especially the pieces for an ensemble of singers, in which Emmanuelle de Negri and/or Anna Reinhold are involved, come off better here than in the first volume. One of the assets of this recording is the participation of Reinoud Van Mechelen, one of the best haute-contres of our time. He shows his skills in Charpentier's Tristes déserts, sombre retraite. I noted some differences in the way ornamentation is added in the solo items. Lisandro Abadie hardly adds ornaments in Moulinié's Enfin la beauté que j'adore, whereas Cyril Auvity's performance of Lambert's Vos mépris chaque jour me causent mille alarmes is nicely and stylishly ornamented. Lambert's airs were published with additional instrumental ritornellos which are nicely played here by the strings of Les Arts Florissants. A further asset of this disc is the use of historical pronunciation.

This is a most interesting and musically compelling sequel to the previous disc. It substantially increases our knowledge of an important genre of French 17th-century music that has to date not received the attention it deserves.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Les Arts Florissants

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