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Thomas-Louis BOURGEOIS (1676 - 1750/51): "Cantates françaises"

Isabelle Desrochers, soprano; Thibaut Lenaerts, tenora
Ensemble Ausonia

rec: August 27 - 30, 2004, Franc-Waret (B), Église Saint-Rémi
Musique en Wallonie - MEW0422 (60'55")

Ariane, cantate [1]; L'Amour et Psiché, cantate à deux voix, sans symphonie [2]; Le berger fidèle, cantate [1]; Phèdre et Hipolitte, cantate à voix seule et symphonie [2]

Sources: [1] Premier Livre de Cantates, , 1708; [2] Second Livre de Cantates, 1718

Georges Barthel, transverse flute; ; Mira Glodeanu, violin; Susie Napper, viola da gamba; James Munro, violone; Julian Behr, theorbo; Frédérick Haas, harpsichord

One of the nicest things which can happen to a reviewer is receiving a disc with unknown music which turns out to be quite a discovery. It doesn't happen that often, but this disc certainly is a discovery to treasure.

The only composer with the name of Bourgeois I was familiar with was Louis Bourgeois (1510 - 1561). He was a French composer who became a follower of the Reformer Jean Calvin, and edited the Genevan Psalter, which was sung by the Huguenots and is still sung by Calvinist congregations today.

Bourgeois was born in Hainault, which today is a province of Belgium. Between 1700 and 1705 he was active as a church musician in Toul and Strassbourg, then went to Paris to sing as an haute-contre in the Académie Royale de Musique. He also gave music lessons and published his first compositions: a book with chamber cantatas and two ballet operas. In 1721 he was in charge of the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. He was forced to leave because of financial mismanagement, and went to The Hague, where he headed the French theatre.

From 1728 to 1735 he sang at the music academy of Dijon, which was founded by Jean-Philippe Rameau's brother Claude. As the academy closed down he returned to Paris where he again composed music for the theatre. He also wrote chamber music, which has all been lost, and motets which - according to contemporary sources - were much appreciated. Just one of these has been preserved. But it seems he had a special preference for secular music, and in particular the chamber cantata. He composed 33 works in that genre between 1708 and 1744. The cantatas recorded here are from the first and second books, dating from 1708 and 1718 respectively.

As most composers of chamber cantatas Bourgeois mixed elements of the French and the Italian styles. The fact that almost all arias are written in the dacapo form are evidence of the Italian influence. There is quite a lot of text expression in the vocal parts, and both voice and instruments illustrate the meaning of the text. In the cantata Ariane the soprano and the violin imitate the sound of trumpets in the ariette 'Mille trompettes éclatantes': "A thousand blaring trumpets carry his glory to the skies." The viola da gamba, which was already in decline in Bourgeois' time, is frequently used in these cantatas - a kind of conservative, typically French element. In the longest aria on this disc, 'Amour, ne cherchez plus', from L'Amour et Psiché, it accompanies the soprano, and also creates the plaintive atmosphere in the instrumental symphonie which precedes the aria.

Another feature of these cantatas which contributes to their often quite dramatic character is the frequent uninterrupted shift from recitative to ariette or aria, and the introduction of arioso elements into the recitative. In Le berger fidèle this is most effectively happening in 'Mais je me flatte en vain': it starts as a recitative, in a reflective mood, but then, on the words "It is too much; let us leave Doris", it turns into an arietta.

Isabelle Desrochers has a very fine voice, which is well suited to this kind of music. She exploits the dramatic aspects of these cantatas, without exaggerating. It is French music, after all, and aimed at pleasing the ear of the audience. Her voice also blends well with the instruments, which are all excellently played. The tenor Thibaut Lenaerts has the appropriate voice for this repertoire, and does sing well, but unfortunately he sounds stressed in the upper notes. It seems the lower voice in L'Amour et Psiché is written for haute-contre - Bourgeois' own type of voice -, but Lenaerts doesn't have quite the tessitura it requires.

Apart from this I have only one complaint: the pronunciation of the French texts. I believe enough is known about period pronunciation to make the modern pronunciation as is used here inexcusable. It is also a little odd to read in the booklet that in this recording a cello is used in the basso continuo, whereas no cello player is mentioned. In fact, the role of the string bass is shared by the viola da gamba and the violone.

To sum up: this is a real discovery. I have listened to these cantatas with increasing satisfaction and admiration. French chamber cantatas can be a little boring after a while, but I had no problems listening to these pieces for one hour at all. I strongly recommend this recording, and I hope we shall hear more from this composer in the future.

Johan van Veen (© 2005)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Ausonia

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