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CD reviews

"Bouillabaisse - French cantatas and chansons"

Ensemble 392

rec: March 2014, Trossingen, Staatliche Hochschule für Musik (Konzertsaal)
fra bernardo - fb 1603721 (© 2016) (46'49")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list
Score Blavet
Score Jacquet de la Guerre
Score Rameau

Michel BLAVET (1700-1768): Sonata in e minor, op. 3,3 [2]; Elisabeth JACQUET DE LA GUERRE (1665-1729): Semelé, cantate avec simphonie [1]; Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764): Cantate pour le jour de St Louis (RCT 25); trad: La fille au Roi Louis; La Furstenberg (after Michel CORRETTE, 1707-1795); Quand je menai les chevaux boire; Une jeune fillette; Robert DE VISÉE (1660-1732): Prélude

Sources: [1] Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Cantates Françoises, [Livre 3], c1715 [2] Michel Blavet, Troisième Livre de Sonates pour la Flûte traversière, Avec la Basse, [op. 3], 1740

Marie-Sophie Pollak, soprano; Julia Stocker, transverse flute; Johannes Ötzbrugger, theorbo; Tizian Naef, harpsichord

A first look at this disc doesn't reveal much of what it is about. The title "Bouillabaisse" doesn't give any clue about the music and the cover shows a picture from 1920. The subtitle says "french cantatas and chansons" but that doesn't make things any clearer. The rear inlay then reveals what we are going to hear: cantatas by Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and Jean-Philippe Rameau and three chansons whose composers are not mentioned. The way the programme has been put together suggests a live performance but the booklet gives no indication of that. It is a bit of a mystery to me what made the artists choose the pieces which they perform here.

Rather than further dwell on this issue let us turn to the music and the performances instead.

The two main works are cantatas. The chamber cantata was a popular form of secular vocal music in Italy since the mid-17th century. It was Alessandro Scarlatti who laid down the texture of such works. There was nothing of this kind in France. It was only in the first decade of the 18th century that composers and music lovers opened up to the influence of the Italian style. This explains that the chamber cantata made its appearance in French salons; Jean-Baptiste Morin was the first composer to publish a collection of cantatas (1706).

Semelé by Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre is taken from her third book of cantatas which was published around 1715. Her first book came from the press in 1708 and included cantatas on sacred subjects. These belong among her best-known compositions. The second book of 1711 and this third book are entirely devoted to cantatas on secular subjects, mostly from the Antiquity. That is also the case here, Semele is a figure from Ovid's Metamorphoses who is seduced by Jupiter (Zeus). The cantata begins at the moment she asks Jupiter to reveal his identity. Semelé shows some of the main features of French chamber cantatas. It is scored for solo voice and simphonie; the latter term refers to any kind of instrumental ensemble - here a transverse flute and bc. It opens with a prélude which is followed by a recitative whose last lines take the form of an arioso. Next is an aria and then follows the dramatic heart of the piece: first a prélude bruit on the text "Woe is me! What thunderbolt rips the air with turbulence apart; there heaven opens its gates and a sudden flash of lightning streaks across the firmament, announcing the coming of the Lord of all." For a composer the challenge was to depict the thunderbolt and the turbulence with the modest means of a single instrument, and Jacquet de Guerre does so quite effectively. This is immediately followed by a recitative, a short air, an instrumental interlude (simphonie) and another air, all following each other attacca. Next follows a recitative, introduced by a short instrumental section, and the cantata closes with an aria which includes the moral: "If the sweet magic of love bewitches us and if its powerful spell holds us in its sweet fetters, then do not let the embers of our vanity perish within its fiery blaze."

The second cantata is by Jean-Philippe Rameau who has become best known for his operas. He saw a clear connection between the two genres: "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". The Cantate pour le jour de Saint Louis is the last of his extant cantatas. It may have been performed in Paris at the eve of the feast the title refers to or at the court. It opens with a prélude of the simphonie which is then joined by the voice. Next follow three pairs of recitative and aria. The first aria is an interplay of voice and instrument; the latter depicts the singing of a bird. Saint Louis refers to King Louis IX (1214-1270) but as this cantata was written under the reign of Louis XV he could also be meant. The word 'saint' could suggest a sacred content but the text is purely secular.

As far as the performance is concerned one important issue needs to be mentioned. Rameau has not specified which instrument should play the simphonie. But the range of this part in the prélude and the Italian treble clef suggest that it is intended for the violin. Here it is played on the transverse flute. "The problem of range was resolved with a few adjustments to the voice-leading, a practice not unusual at the time", Tizian Neaf states in his liner-notes. So far so good. But the choice of the flute makes it impossible to perform the last aria. This - and the preceding recitative - come in two alternatives, one of them for performances on other occasions than St Louis, with a different text. "Both last movements are composed in festive B flat major and use the same motivic material (...). Unfortunately, this festive character of B flat major does not suit the nature of the transverse flute well. Since the cantata was not recorded in the context of the jour de Saint Louis, we deliberately refrained from playing the final recitative and the final aria. In our opinion the second air, Que sur ces rivages aimés, in radiant G major, offers a far more worthy close when performed on the transverse flute".

I find this very odd and in my view this is simply unacceptable. If the music makes the choice of a particular instrument impossible the artists either should use a different instrument or choose another piece. The argument regarding St Louis is null and void: Rameau offered an alternative text for performances out of the original context but certainly did not expect performers to entirely omit the last recitative and aria. It is a great shame that this cantata is not performed complete as it is one of Rameau's lesser-known.

This seriously reduces the value of this disc which is very regrettable as the performances are very good. I like the way Marie-Sophie Pollak sings the vocal parts; she has a very beautiful voice and she hardly uses vibrato. She fully explores the dramatic episodes in Jacquet de la Guerre's cantata and the dialogue with the flute in Jacquet de la Guerre is very well-done. That is also due to Julia Stocker who plays the flute beautifully. She also delivers an excellent performance of the Sonata in e minor by Blavet.

The performers also take some liberties in the three songs which are called "traditional". This basically means that there is not something like a fixed form which leaves much room for improvisation. One of these songs, Une jeune fillette, is quite famous and was known across Europe, albeit under different titles, such as La Monica (Italy), The Queen's Almaine (England) and Von Gott will ich nicht lassen (Germany).

I would have liked to recommend this disc without reservation on the basis of the qualities of the music and the interpretations of most of the pieces on the programme. But the liberties in Rameau's cantata are hard to swallow. The playing time is not very generous, to put it mildly, and the use of modern pronunciation is also disappointing. It is up to you to weigh up the pros and cons.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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