The title of this disc reflects its central theme: the story of Orpheus,
the mythological singer who inspired so many composers in the
history of music. The result 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 9th 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 'counter-tenor' 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 would have 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 that of the booklet.
'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. 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 has already existed for about 80 years.
The genre had its prime in the first three decades of the 18th
century. Cantatas were popular repertoire in the 'Concerts Spirituels'
which began in 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
The two cantatas here take up the same subject, but in very different
ways. In Clérambault's cantata it is Orpheus himself speaks,
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 does
nothing to belie his reputation as an opera composer. 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
of the renaissance - 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
- as in the chamber cantata - there are parts for one or two
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 playing of the violinist
is a little lacklustre, and left me distinctly unhappy.
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 knows full well how to deal
with the theatrical character of Rameau's cantata. He seems
to feel equally at home in Clérambault's cantata and in the
intimate and introverted songs. It is a shame that the contributions
of the violinist are a little disappointing, not only in Couperin
but also in the vocal items. But that doesn't stop me recommending
this disc. I have to 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 far from suitable for this
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 would not
be hard to find a more appropriate venue.
To sum up: the main attractions of this disc is the repertoire and the
singing of Cyril Auvity and these outweigh its shortcomings.
Johan van Veen