musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Italian and French chamber cantatas

[I] "Orfeo(s) - Italian & French cantatas"
Sunhae Im, soprano
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
rec: Nov 2013 & Feb 2014, Berlin, Teldex Studio
Harmonia mundi - HMC 902189 (© 2015) (69'21")
Liner-notes: E/F/D; lyrics - translations: D/F/E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Louis-Nicolas CLÉRAMBAULT (1676-1749): Orphée; Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710-1736): Orfeo (P 115); Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764): Orphée (RCT 27); Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725): L'Orfeo

Sources: Louis-Nicolas Clérambault, Cantates françoises, Livre I, 1710; Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, 4 cantate da camera ... di G.B. Pergolesi, op. 2, after 1736

[II] "Ariane & Orphée - French Baroque Cantatas"
Hasnaa Bennani, sopranoa
Ensemble Stravaganza
rec: April 27 - 28 & June 9 - 10, 2015, Paris, Église Réformée Luthérienne Saint Pierre
muso - mu-009 (© 2015) (60'26")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Philippe COURBOIS (1705-1730): Ariane, cantate à voix seule et violona; Elisabeth JACQUET DE LA GUERRE (1665-1729): Sonata for violin, viola da gamba and bc No. 1 in d minor; Michel LAMBERT (1610-1696): Ombre de mon amanta; Marin MARAIS (1656-1728): Suite No. 1 in D (chaconne); Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764): Orphée (RCT 27)a

Sources: Michel Lambert, Airs à Une, II, III et IV Parties avec la Basse-Continue, 1689; Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, 6 Sonates, 1707; Philippe Courbois, Cantates françoises à I. et II. voix, sans simphonie et avec simphonie, 1710

Anna Besson, Georges Barthel, transverse flute; Domitille Gilon, Fabien Roussel, violin; Robin Pharo, dessus de viole; Ronald Martin Alonso, viola da gamba; Vincent Fluckiger, theorbo, guitar; Thomas Soltani, harpsichord

Score Clérambault, Orphée
Score Jacquet de la Guerre
Score Pergolesi, Orfeo
Score Rameau, Orphée

Characters and stories from classical mythology take a central place in the secular music of the baroque era. They were often taken as the subject of operas and chamber cantatas. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, many stories from mythology have a strongly dramatic character, such as Dido and Aeneas or Ariadne and Theseus. They were tailor-made for the stage. Secondly, music was first and foremost written for the upper echelons of society, and classical mythology was part of their education. The audiences knew the characters and the stories and therefore were able to understand and hopefully enjoy what librettists and composers had made of them. Lastly, the world of gods, heroes and sorceresses was also an allegory of the real world. The gods were portrayed as very human, with all the vices and virtues which are typical of mankind. Taking them as protagonists of librettos for cantatas and operas allowed the authors to express a moral - usually in arias, in cantatas mostly the concluding aria - without being too explicit and making the listeners feel uncomfortable. A good example is Lully's opera Phaéton of 1663. Philippe Quinault's libretto can be read as an allegorical depiction of the punishment awaiting those mortals who dare to raise themselves as high as the "sun". As that message was very likely addressed to the Sun King himself it could obviously not be too explicit.

The two discs under review here are about two characters from mythology. The most famous of them is Orpheus. This character exerted a special attraction on composers of operas and cantatas. Not only is the story very dramatic, it is also about love - one of the main elements in secular music - and about the power of music. It is not surprising that the first operas in music history focused on the story of this singer and his beloved Eurydice. In 1600 two operas on the same subject were performed, from the pen of Giulio Caccini and Jacopo Peri respectively. And Monteverdi's L'Orfeo and Gluck's Orfeo and Euridice rank among the most famous operas.

Sunhae Im selected four cantatas which deal with this story. It is interesting to note that the subject is treated very differently. The programme starts with Orfeo by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, who has become famous for his Stabat mater. That was the last work he composed during his very short life. Before that he was mainly active as a composer of operas. Orfeo is part of a collection of four chamber cantatas published after his death as his op. 2. It is for soprano, strings and bc and comprises two pairs of recitative and aria. In the first recitative the soprano acts as narrator, telling the audience how Orpheus gives free rein to his grief. The first aria opens with the famous words: "Eurydice, where are you?" In the next recitative he asks whether it is possible "to return to the light of the sun". In the closing aria he declares that "either I will depart in triumph with Eurydice" from the underworld or he will remain an unhappy spirit "by the dark waters of Acheron". Pergolesi's setting has much of an operatic scene, and is very different from the next work in the programme.

That piece is another chamber cantata, by the French composer Louis-Nicolas Clérambault. It is from a collection published in 1710, at a time when the influence of Italian music was only beginning to manifest itself. Cantatas like this were written for performance in the salons of the upper echelons of society by a small ensemble. This cantata is for soprano, transverse flute, violin and bc. There are certainly dramatic elements but in general the elegance which is typical for French music under the ancien régime is predominant. A very extroverted expression of feelings was not considered appropriate in the rather formal social structure of the time. The cantata opens with telling about Orpheus' grief about the loss of Euridice. The first aria has the indication tendre et piqué (tender and staccato). In the next recitative and aria pair he decides to try to get her back: "Go, Orpheus, go, go, that your great love may serve as an example to the Universe. (...) Hasten, hasten, ardent lover (...)". This 'haste' is eloquently depicted in the music. The next recitative and aria are about the confrontation between Orpheus and the god of the Underworld: "Give me back my dear Eurydice". Pluto gives in: "Go, take back your Eurydice". The cantata ends with an air gay which includes the moral: "Sing of the glorious victory, won by tender love. Even in the darkness of the Underworld his flame is triumphant".

Next we hear a cantata by Alessandro Scarlatti which is in fact a kind of sequel to Clérambault's cantata. It opens with a recitative which tells that "[from] the dark abode of burning Dis [Pluto] Orpheus was leading back with him the beloved shade of his dead Euridice." But then he disobeys the order not to look at her and as a result he loses her once again. In his aria he says: "Who robs me of my dear Euridice?" He then realises that he is the author of his own misfortunes. In a harmonically unsettling aria he asks: "If by glancing, wicked eyes, you are capable of taking life, why (...) do you not kill me too?" He then starts to sing, hoping that his "melodious lips" are able to "soften my cruel torments". In the ensuing aria he remembers how his singing made "Cerberus ceased to bark" and "Hell has grown calm at the sound of my notes". But it doesn't work: "The power of song is taken from me by grief". He then tries to enter the Underworld but "the cruel ferryman of dead souls remained deaf". Then we find out that this cantata is a story within a story. The singer uses the story of Orpheus to appeal to his beloved: "Phyllis, you who with compassion have listened to the heartrending tale of Orpheus, (...) why do you not take pity on my woes when I have lost my heart through having gazed on you?" In the closing aria he asks her to "take pity on my torments".

The disc ends with Rameau's account of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. He deals with the same part of the story as Scarlatti. The opening recitative tell us what just has happened: "By the conquering charm of a harmonious song Orpheus snatched the object of his love from the realm of shadows". In the aria he is praised for his efforts but he is only aware of Eurydice. He can't resist the temptation to look at her and then the disaster happens: "A merciless hand kept her in the realm of the dead." We are here in the dramatic heart of the cantata. In an aria Orpheus appeals to Amor: "[You] are responsible for my crime; can you not make amends?" In the following recitative we are told that his appeal is to no avail: "Only by quitting the light of day can he rejoin the one he loves". The closing aria expresses the moral of the story: "Many a man today would be happy had he not desired his happiness too soon."

This cantata by Rameau belongs to the same category as Clérambault's but is more dramatic. That is not surprising considering Rameau's success as a composer of operas. He saw a clear connection between the two genres. When he started to write operas he could bring his experience in the cantata genre to the task. In 1744 he wrote: "Before undertaking so great a work, it is necessary to have done smaller ones, cantatas, entertainments, and a thousand trifles of the sort that nourish the spirit, kindle the imagination, and gradually make one capable of greater things".

This cantata also opens the disc of Hasnaa Bennani and the Ensemble Stavaganza. They have included a second cantata by Philippe Courbois. Little is known about him. He was at one time maître de musique in the household of the Duchess of Maine, whose home in Sceaux became an important musical centre during the closing years of Louis XIV's reign and the beginning of the Regency. He published a book with seven cantatas in 1710, the same year Clérambault's first book of cantatas was printed. In his cantata Ariane he takes up another frequently used subject: the story of Ariadne and Theseus. It inspired many composers, for instance Haydn (Arianna a Naxos). It begins with a description of Ariadne's happiness as she sleeps "under the trees of a tranquil grove", not aware of Theseus' inconstancy. The first aria has the indication fort lent - very slow - and urges her not to wake up. "All too soon will you see your misfortune". The following recitative reveals the harsh reality and the ensuing aria is called prélude fort viste - very fast. This is the most dramatic part of the cantata: "Gods of the seas, serve my wrath, may the heavens burst, may they thunder." Then the god of the wine appears and Ariadne "gives all the heart to the love of Bacchus". The closing aria says: "[May] a fairer conquest, for losing a faithless man, recompense your sweet charms". This is the moral of the story.

Sunhae Im is a singer who has a wide experience in opera, and has worked, for instance, with René Jacobs. Her feeling for drama comes off here to good effect. The cantatas receive fine performances and it attests to her style awareness that she makes a clear distinction between the almost operatic cantata by Pergolesi and the more intimate and restrained cantata by Clérambault. She doesn't sing the cantatas as if she is on the stage. There are clear similarities between opera and chamber cantatas but they are not the same. She also has no problems with the text; it is regrettable that she doesn't make use of historical French pronunciation but that is probably too much to ask from a singer who is after all not a specialist in early music. Taking that into account there is every reason to be happy with this disc. She should have reduced her vibrato, but in comparison with what I often hear in baroque opera and cantatas it is not wide and not disturbing. The Akademie für Alte Musik fully lives up to its usual standard.

I am less impressed by the recording of Hasnaa Bennani and the Ensemble Stravaganza. Sunhae Im captures the dramatic character of Rameau's Orphée much better than Ms Bennani whose performance is rather tame. It doesn't help that there is too much space between the tracks - for instance the opening recitative and the ensuing aria - which damages the dramatic flow. The less theatrical cantata by Courbois comes off slightly better, but Agnès Mellon and Barcarole (Alpha, 2005) are much more convincing here, even though one could argue that they probably go a little too far and make it sound too much like an Italian piece. Mellon uses too much vibrato, but that also goes for Hasnaa Bennani: her incessant and pretty wide vibrato is out of place.

The French chamber cantatas are a mixture of French and Italian influences. That also is the case with the two instrumental works the Ensemble Stravaganza has included in its programme. Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre was a child prodigy who played the harpsichord before Louis XIV at a very young age and from then on enjoyed his protection. She was one of the first composers in France who wrote sonatas for a melody instrument and basso continuo and incorporated Italian elements in her compositions. In 1707 she published a collection of sonatas for violin with an obbligato part for the viola da gamba. The Sonata I in d minor is one of the sonatas in which the latter has a solo role. This piece is well performed here and I enjoyed the ensemble's playing much more than in the cantatas where I found it sometimes rather bland.

The chaconne was one of the most popular forms in France in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Every Lully opera included such a piece in its last act. The chaconne by Marais is part of a suite which was included in a collection of music to be played by the musicians of the court when the King was going to bed. Lully also composed a number of pieces for this ceremony. Marais - although a representative of the French style - was one of the first to compose music which points in the direction of the trio sonata - another form which had its roots in the Italian style.

Ombre de mon amant is by far the most famous air de cour by Michel Lambert, one of the main composers of such songs in the 17th century and father-in-law of Lully. These songs are typical of the kind of music which was performed at the court. It is for solo voice and basso continuo with ritornellos for instruments which are not specified. Here they are played by a treble viol and a violin. The text fits well into the programme of this disc: "Shadow of my lover, shadow ever plaintive, Alas! What do you want? I die." Hasnaa Bennani sings it rather well; fortunately she keeps her vibrato slightly more in check than in the cantatas.

To sum up: the recording by Sunhae Im is interesting in regard to its conception: four different ways of treating one subject. The performances are excellent from a dramatic and expressive point of view and pretty good as far as style is concerned. The disc of Hasnaa Bennani and the Ensemble Stravaganza is largely disappointing from a dramatic and stylistic angle as far as the vocal items are concerned. The instrumental pieces are given good performances but they don't take enough prominence to make this disc unreservedly recommendable

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Hasnaa Bennani
Sunhae Im
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Ensemble Stravaganza

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