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"Les Grâces Françoises - Music of the French Baroque"

Les Grâces

rec: June 3 - 5, 2010, Berkeley, CA, University of California (Hertz Hall)
MSR Classics - MSR 1396 (© 2011) (76'45")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Nicolas BERNIER (1665-1734): Le Caffé, cantate avec simphonieabcd [1]; François COUPERIN (1668-1733): Neuvième Concert 'Ritratto dell'amore'bcd [3]; Jacques DUPHLY (1715-1789): La De Belombred [5]; Les grâcesd [5]; Menuets I & IId [5]; Marin MARAIS (1656-1728): Pièces de viole in a minor (prélude; allemande; courante; sarabande)cd [2]; Michel Pignolet DE MONTÉCLAIR (1667-1737): Ariane et Bachus, cantate avec simphonieabcd [4]

Sources: [1] Nicolas Bernier, Cantates françoises, 3e livre, c1711; [2] Marin Marais, Pièces de violes, 3e livre, 1711; [3] François Couperin, Les Goûts-réünis, 1724; [4] Michel Pignolet de Montéclair, Cantates à une et à deux voix avec simphonie, 3e livre, 1728; [5] Jacques Duphly, Pièces de clavecin, 3e livre, 1756

Jennifer Paulino, sopranoa; Annette Bauer, recorderb; Rebekah Ahrendt, viola da gambac; Jonathan Rhodes Lee, harpsichordd

Since the Middle Ages music has been one of the main occupations of the aristocracy. In the first decades of the 18th century this occupation extended to other echelons of society. Wealthy citizens liked to sing and play or to listen to music at their homes or in social gatherings. In France two genres were particularly popular, the sonata and the cantata. Their small scoring was excellently suited to the intimate surroundings of the salons of Paris and other towns. As a result large numbers of pieces in both genres were produced by the best composers of the time. The scoring reflects the instruments which were particularly loved, the transverse flute and the violin. The recorder still played a role, but became increasingly marginal.

The present disc includes several specimens from these two genres. The performers haven't made things easy for themselves by choosing from the best-known and most frequently recorded compositions as far as the instrumental repertoire is concerned. The gamba music of Marin Marais is present on many discs. One wonders why someone with an interest in French music of this period would want to hear just four pieces from a book which is easily available complete. The performance by Rebekah Ahrendt is alright, but not very engaging.

The same has to be said of the Neuvième ConcertLes Goûts-réünis which is played here on the recorder. Strictly speaking there is no objection against the use of the recorder. Couperin didn't specify the instruments to be used in his instrumental concerts. But when Couperin refers to performances he doesn't mention the recorder. These pieces were rather played on violin, viola da gamba, oboe and bassoon. The transverse flute was also often used in compositions like this. The recorder is not the most obvious choice, as it was increasingly marginalised, but also because of its limited dynamic possibilities. The latter is exactly one of the reasons that this performance is rather subdued and lacks expression. Annette Bauer's playing falls short in dynamic shades, and her interpretation is too restrained. This is no Italian music - although clearly influenced by it - but that doesn't mean a performance should be so bland as is the case here. Only recently I reviewed a disc with the German recorder player Dorothee Oberlinger who gives a quite different account of French music from the early 18th century.

This is a bit indicative of this disc as a whole. The three harpsichord pieces by Jacques Duphly are quite extroverted, but that doesn't really come off in Jonathan Rhodes Lee's performance. The tempi are slowish, and the articulation should have been sharper, with stronger contrasts between musical figures.

The two cantatas are the most interesting part of the programme. It begins with Le Caffé by Nicolas Bernier, which reflects the fashion of drinking coffee which had emerged in the last quarter of the 17th century. One wonders why Rebekah Ahrendt didn't choose Marais' saillie du Caffé, also from the third book. Jennifer Paulino has what it takes to sing such cantatas, but I would have liked her to use a little less vibrato, although it is not too obtrusive. Her quite extroverted approach conflicts with the too restrained playing of Annette Bauer. In this cantata the use of a recorder is more plausible than in Ariane et Bachus by Michel Pignolet de Montéclair. It is out of step with the first part which is quite dramatic expressing the anger of Ariane being left by Theseus. After that she is consoled by Bacchus who falls in love with her. The most commonly used instrument for illustrating love is the transverse flute. That would also have been a better choice because of the instrument's wider dynamic range and more differentiated colour palette. In this cantata I find Ms Paulino's vibrato more of a problem, and the ornamentation in the dacapo of the aria 'Regnez adorable mortelle' seems at odds with the aria's character indication tendre.

My enthusiasm for this disc is limited. The choice of repertoire is disappointing as far as the instrumental music is concerned. The cantatas are the main attraction, even though the performances are not top-notch.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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