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"Cantates Françoises, Volume 1"

Julianne Bairda, Laura Heimesb, soprano; Curtis Streetman, bassc
Brandywine Baroque
rec: [n.d., n.p]
Plectra Music - PL20902 (© 2009) (66'20")

Louis-Nicolas CLÉRAMBAULT (1676-1749): L'Amour et Bacchusbc; Le Triomphe de la Paixabc; Elisabeth JACQUET DE LA GUERRE (1665-1729): Jepthéab; Pièces de Clavecin: Chaconne; Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764): Hyppolite et Aricie: Rossignols amoureuxa

(Sources: [1] Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Pièces de clavecin qui peuvent se jouer sur le viollon, 1707; [2] Louis-Nicolas Clérambault, Cantates françoises, Livre I, 1710; [3] Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Cantates françoises, Livre II, 1711; [4] Louis-Nicolas Clérambault, Cantates françoises, Livre II, 1713)

Eileen Grycky, transverse flute; Elizabeth Field, Nina Falk, violin; Douglas McNames, cello; Karen Flint, harpsichord

In the beginning of the 18th century the chamber cantata developed into one of the main musical genres. The French composer Sébastien de Brossard gave an interesting explanation for the popularity of the cantata. "[T]he French, being naturally impatient, have difficulty concentrating on the same thing for an extended period of time. Cantatas are ordinarily just long enough to entertain without becoming dull." A large number of cantatas were composed in the first decades of the 18th century, until the 1730s when the cantata lost considerable ground.

The present disc is interesting in that it presents three cantatas of a very different kind.
It opens with the cantata Jepthé by Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. She was a child prodigy, playing the harpsichord and singing from the age of five at the court of Louis XIV whose protégée she became. She was also active as performer and teacher, and composed in several genres, like keyboard music and chamber music, and she was the first woman in France who composed an opera. She also contributed to the genre of the cantata; three books with cantatas were published between 1708 and 1715. The first two books contain cantatas on biblical subjects, and one of them is Jepthé on the story from the book Judges. It is remarkable that this cantata is written for two voices. They are not, as one probably would expect, representing Jephtha and his daughter. Both voices are in treble range, and they don't represent a character, but are only referred to as dessus. The two singers are in fact observers who describe what happens and reflect on the events. The only exception is the second aria, in which the first soprano identifies with Jephtha's daughter: "Righteous heaven, forgive the rage that seizes my spirits (...) my arm will carry out what you command". Also remarkable is that the B section of this cantata has the form of a recitative. The duet 'Vous, ses chères Compagnes' which urges the friends of Jephtha's daughter to lament her fate, contains some sharp dissonances.

Louis-Nicolas Clérambault was one of the most famous composers of cantatas. In particular Orphée and Médée were popular, not only in France but also abroad. They belong to Clérambault's most dramatic cantatas, but here we hear a different aspect of his output in this genre: L'Amour et Bacchus is a debate between the gods of love (Cupid, soprano) and wine (Bacchus, bass) who both claim to be the most powerful. The cantata ends with both pledging unity in the pursuit of pleasure. In this cantata Clérambault writes particularly nice music to characterise the different characters. In the booklet Rebekah Ahrendt points out the "extremely florid accompaniment". She is right, because the basso continuo part in itself is a joy to listen to, especially in Bacchus' aria 'Quand Bacchus'.

The last cantata of this disc, again by Clérambault, is unusual as well. It was written for a special occasion, the celebration of the Peace of Utrecht in 1713. This is reflected by the scoring for three voices, two obbligato instruments and bc. The three singers represent three characters: Flora, Pomonus (both soprano) and Vertumnus (bass). They emphasize the importance of peace and love replacing war, thanks to "a majestic King" (Louis XIV) and "a wise Queen" (Queen Anne).

In between are two other pieces. The Chaconne by Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre is a good choice, showing an aspect of the composer she was especially famous for. But the inclusion of an aria from Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie is a bit odd as this work is from a much later date (1733) than the rest of the programme. The performance doesn't really come off the ground, probably because of a lack of context, but also because the singing and playing is rather flat. The acoustical circumstances aren't very helpful either. It is an operatic piece and the very dry acoustics of this recording is not very appropriate.

These circumstances seem much more suitable for chamber cantatas, but I don't think they are. There is absolutely no reverberation at all, the sound immediately falls dead after the last note has been played or sung. This is most unnatural and unfortunate. It is one of the reasons this disc doesn't really come to life. But the performances are also less than ideal. The singing and playing is very good. Laura Heimes and Julianne Baird have beautiful voices which blend perfectly. Curtis Streetman also has a pleasant voice and sings stylishly. But the performances are hardly more than neat and clean, and that is not enough. There is a lack of real engagement; the whole programme babbles on without much happening. In particular in Jacquet de la Guerre's cantata the dramatic elements are underexposed. This seems to be the first of a series of recordings with French cantatas. Hopefully these fine singers and players will provide more engaging performances in future releases.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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