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Cyril Auvity, tenora
rec: April 25 - 27, 2007, Paris, Église St Marcel
ZigZag Territoires - ZZT 071002 (© 2007) (76'33")

François Bouvard (c1683-1760): Plus je vous voisa; Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704): Tristes désertsa; Louis-Nicolas Clérambault (1676-1749): Orphéea; François Couperin (1668-1733): 9e Concert Royal in E 'Ritratto dell'Amore' (exc); Michel Lambert (1610-1696): Par mes chantsa; Vos mépris chaque joura; Vous ne sauriez, mes yeuxa; Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764): Orphéea; D.S.: Mes Yeuxa

Amélie Michel, transverse flute; Léonor de Récondo, violin; Elisa Joglar, cello; Marc Wolff, lute, theorbo; Isabelle Sauveur, harpsichord

The title of this disc suggests its central theme is the story of Orpheus, the famous mythological singer who has inspired so many composers in the history of music. The result of this inspiration is a large number of cantatas and operas which in one way or another deal with the tragic fate of Orpheus. On this disc two cantatas from the French baroque are performed, by Clérambault and Rameau respectively. Considering the subject of this disc it is a little surprising that they take up less than half of its playing time. The rest of the disc is devoted to short vocal pieces, mainly so-called 'airs de cour' and movements from the 9e Concert Royal by Couperin. I fail to see the connection between the cantatas and the other items in the programme.

The booklet doesn't clear it up either. It contains a short essay on the myth of Orpheus and its influence in Western music, some remarks about the French cantata and thoughts about the difference between tenor, haute-contre and the modern term countertenor used to describe a singer using his falsetto register. I can't see the relevance of this, as Cyril Auvity is described here as 'tenor' and not as 'haute-contre'. I had liked to know a little more about the concept behind the programme, and also something about the music performed here. There is no analysis of the two cantatas, the first names of the composers are not given - just 'Mr Clérambault' and 'Mr Rameau' - nor dates of birth and death. And there is one piece whose composer is referred to as 'Mr D.S.' - it would be nice to know whether there is any idea about who he could be. Fortunately the quality of the music and the performance is better than the booklet's.

La Grande Encyclopédie (1751-52) defined the cantata as "a short poem written to be set to music, recounting a tale of love or heroism; it comprises a récit which states the subject, an air en rondeau, a second récit, and a final air which contains the moral point of the work". This is the standard pattern, but composers felt free to change or extend this form if necessary. And so the two cantatas on this disc contain more than just two recitatives and two arias, although the concluding arias indeed contain the "moral point of the work". The cantata was a relatively late development in the history of French music: the first appeared around 1700. Its emergence is the direct result of the growing interest in music from Italy, where the chamber cantata existed for about 80 years already. The genre had its prime in the first three decades of the 18th century. Cantatas were popular repertoire in the Concert Spirituel, a concert series which took place since 1725. After some time they made their entrance in the houses of the middle class. There they were usually performed without any staging or scenery. Whereas the cantatas in the Concerts Spirituels were usually performed with an orchestra, the cantatas written for the chamber were mostly scored for one voice and basso continuo, sometimes with one or two additional treble instruments.

The two cantatas here take up the same subject, but in very different ways. In Clérambault's cantata it is Orpheus himself who is speaking, and the story ends when his beloved Euridice is released from the underworld. Rameau, on the other hand, concentrates on the tragic aspect of the story: against the specific instructions given to him, Orpheus looks back to see whether Euridice is indeed following him, and as a results loses her for ever. It is a narrator who tells the story, and he does so in dramatic fashion. The recitative in which he tells how Orpheus loses Euridice is the most theatrical of the cantata, and Rameau doesn't belie his reputation as an opera composer here. Both cantatas end with a moral - but, as they treat the subject differently, the moral lessons are different too. In Clérambault's cantata Orpheus sings: "Sing of the resounding victory won by tender love! Even in the dark abode its flame is triumphant". But in Rameau's Orphée the narrator concludes that a lover often misses the "delightful opportunity" through "excessive impatience", and states: "A skilled lover is always the master of his impetuous desires".

The airs de cour - which one could compare with the English lute song - are mostly pretty gloomy, describing pain and torment, usually as a result of unhappy love. The titles speak for themselves: "From my sad and touching songs you know, Iris, the pain that oppresses me", "My eyes, you cannot shed too many tears" or "Your scorn each day causes me a thousand anguishes". Clérambault's song Tristes déserts which concludes this disc, ends thus: "Rocks to which I have always confided my lot: I have told you the extremity of my secret pain; you will bear witness to my death". Most of these songs are for voice and basso continuo, but sometimes - like in the chamber cantata - there are parts for one or two treble instruments.

The inclusion of movements from Couperin's 9e Concert from the series of Concerts Royaux is a little mysterious to me. Is it just to provide some breathing space between the vocal items, or has it anything to do with the piece's title, Ritratto dell'Amore (a portrait of love)? Perhaps it is meant to be a kind of counterweight to all the gloominess of the vocal items, but if that is the case it is to no avail, I'm afraid: the violinist plays a little lacklustre, and it didn't make me very happy to listen to.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his Dictionnaire de Musique (1767), indicates how cantatas should be approached: a cantata is "a sort of lyric poem that is sung with accompaniments and which, although made for the chamber, must be invested by the musician with the warmth and grace of descriptive music and of music composed for the theatre". Cyril Auvity fully comes up to these requirements. Although still young he is already quite experienced in singing opera, and as a result he knows full well how to deal with the theatrical character of Rameau's cantata. But he seems to feel equally at home in Clérambault's cantata and the intimate and introverted songs. It is a shame that the contributions of the violinist are a little disappointing, not only in Couperin but in the vocal items as well. But that doesn't stop me recommending this disc. I have two make two further critical remarks, though. First of all, I don't understand why the vocal pieces are sung in modern French pronunciation. I find that very odd. Secondly, why are ensembles and record companies insisting on recording in churches, even when these are not very suitable for the repertoire? What I missed here is the intimacy of a chamber - that is what the cantatas were written for, after all. In particular in the louder passages the reverberation of the church has a negative effect - it is simply unnatural. It can't be that hard to find a more appropriate venue.

To sum up: the main attraction of this disc is the repertoire and the singing of Cyril Auvity which outweigh its shortcomings.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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