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Musique à Versailles
Marin MARAIS (1656-1728)
Les Folies d’Espagne
(1701) [18:48]
Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
Musette en Rondeau
[1:46]; Rigaudon [1:25]; Gigue [1:15]; Les Sauvages (1728) [2:12]; Tambourin (1724) [1:18]; La Follette [1:41]
Marin MARAIS
Suite in d-minor [9:45]
Michel-Richard DELALANDE (1657-1726)
Symphonies de Noël
[15:27]
François COUPERIN (1668-1733)
Les Barricades mystérieuses
(1717) [1:30]; Sœur Monique (1722) [3:11]; Concerto No. VI in B (1724) [10:23]
Trio Marie-Antoinette (Hansjörg Schellenberger (oboe); Margit-Anna Süss (baroque harp); Klas Stoll (violone))
rec. Berlin Philharmonic Kammermusiksaal, September, 1999. DDD.
CAMPANELLA MUSICA C130090 [68:41]
Experience Classicsonline


If, like me, you hadn’t come across the Campanella Musica label before, a little information from their website will not come amiss:
 
Campanella Musica is a label specializing in chamber music with the musicians being the publishers themselves: excellent artists create their own productions, personally responsible for every aspect of artistic and economic competence. Under the roof of “Campanella Musica” they participate in the distribution of a very small and exclusive CD series which aims to present artistic profiles in a compact programmatic context.
 
Recorded in 1999, designated (P) and (C) 2000, and apparently available in the UK since 2003, this CD seems to have taken some time before being submitted as a review copy.
 
The music on the CD could all have been performed at the court of Versailles in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, but the claim made in the notes that the name of the performers, Trio Marie-Antoinette, is “historically appropriate for music of this period” stretches the meaning of the word ‘period’, since the lady in question arrived at Versailles long after the demise of any of these composers.  Some telescoping of logic also seems to have gone into the statement that “The name of the ensemble ... is an echo of the name of the barock [sic] harp, which makes its entry in the trio.”
 
The instruments employed, oboe, baroque harp and violone, may well have been heard together occasionally, but I doubt if any of the music here was written for such an ensemble. It is a serious shortcoming that we are offered only a sketchy rationale for the programme and no indication of the sources of the various items or who made the adaptations for this particular trio.  The website is no more helpful.
 
The performance of Marais’s Les Folies begins slowly and tentatively, establishing the well-known theme of La Folia, itself the subject of countless variations in the baroque period.  The playing throughout is delicate – perhaps a little too delicate to retain the listener’s attention in the first few variations.  Played here by, effectively, a ‘broken consort’, the music should have more variety than in a performance by a viol consort, but the whole effect is rather tame.   In the opening variations, this may partly, but not wholly, be laid at Marais’s door.  Schellenberger’s playing is delightful, especially in the slower variations, and he is well supported.  As the variations progress, the performance comes more fully to life in the more vigorous sections – positively sprightly at times – but overall the music-making is just a shade too civilised.
 
By coincidence, just as I was completing this review, I received my copy of the 2008 Proms Programme where I note that Marais’s Couplets des Folies d’Espagne at the hands of Jordi Savall and Rolf Lislevand on August 18th is expected to last 14 minutes, confirming my feeling that 18:48 is rather too long for this piece.  Yes, I know that Jordi Savall’s performances are usually fast, but even so, an extra five minutes is surely too much, despite my colleague JV’s recent enthusiastic welcome for a recording by Ensemble Spirale including a performance of the Folies which takes 18:14 (Zig-Zag Territoires ZZT060801 – see review).  It isn’t just a matter of tempo so much as the three players’ failure to project the contrasts in character and tempo which JV rightly describes as essential components of this work.
 
On a recommendable recording of the Pièces de viole du second livre, members of Phatasm on BIS-CD909 take 16:46 for Les Folies; Le Spectre de la Rose take a similar 16:38 on Naxos 8.553081.  Either of these CDs or the Zig-Zag recording would make a better introduction to Marais than the Campanella Musica CD, as would another Spectre de la Rose CD of music by Marais and Sainte-Colombe on Naxos 8.550750.  Then, of course, there is the incomparable recording of the soundtrack from Tous les Matins du Monde on Avie AV9821, a 5-star Musicweb recommendation (see review).  The Naxos CDs are offered at bargain price, as also is a recommendable  Harmonia Mundi D’Abord recital (HMA195 5248 – see review).  Even better value is a Virgin Veritas 2-CD set at around £8.50 in the UK (4 82082 2 – see review).
 
The Rameau pieces, from the Pièces de clavecin and its successors (1724-41) receive stylish performances, with the harp replacing the right hand part and the violone the left.  As in the Marais, the prevailing mood is rather tame.  The Rigaudon could have been more lively, the Gigue certainly should have been.  Les Sauvages come over as tame denizens of the court rather than of the jungle – these are noble savages indeed, though in a different sense from those described in Montaigne’s famous essay Des Cannibales and his probably source, Jean de Léry’s Histoire d’un Voyage, of a generation earlier.   This performance lacks the “well-judged swing and fluidity” which my colleague PS found in Sophie Yates’s version on Chandos CHAN0708 – see review.   Tambourin fails to evoke that instrument as effectively as the harpsichord could, pointing to the inadequacy of the harp and violone as substitutes, despite the final thwack with which Stoll rounds off the piece.  (See Sophie Yates again, on CHAN0659, or Trevor Pinnock on Avie AV2056.)  La Follette, however, is suitably fey-like.  Scores of Les Sauvages and Tambourin are available from the icking music website.
 
The Marais Suite opens with a quiet Prélude.  Once again, elegance is the keynote of the performance here and throughout the following dance movements.
 
The Symphonie by Delalande (also frequently spelled de Lalande, a composer better known for his vocal music) was originally written for the organ, in which form it is available on a CD of Christmas Organ Music on the Farao label (F100205).  The composition of such pieces was common in France in the 17th century – see my reviews of Daquin’s Nouveau Livre de Noëls, CDH55319, and Puer nobis nascitur, CC72234).  This music does sound rather out of place deprived of its Christmas context, though attractive enough to anyone who does not know the underlying tune to make the Christmas connection.  Anyone who has heard Charpentier’s famous Messe de Minuit, however, will immediately recognise many of the tunes.
 
The question also arises whether this music lends itself to the instrumental arrangements here.  Good as these performances are, it really needs the more extensive palette and greater weight of the organ.  Some sections come off well, however, such as track 16 Voicy le jour solemnel, track 17, Je me suis levé and the lively track 21, Notre bon père Noël.
 
François Couperin, sometimes called le Grand, was the most talented member of a family almost as musically prodigious as the Bach family.  les Barricades mystérieuse and Sœuer Monique come from his keyboard Suites or Pièces de clavecin; they are available on many anthology CDs.  The harp provides a reasonable substitute for the harpsichord in Süss’s  evocative performance of Barricades and Sœur Monique.  Scores of both pieces are available at icking music.
 
Concert No.VI is taken from les Goûts réunis, a follow-up to the four Concerts Royaux, written in the last years of Louis XIV for performance at court.  Couperin’s attempt in les Goûts réunis to reconcile the competing claims of the Italian and French styles would have made more sense if music by Lully had been included on this CD alongside that of his great rival Rameau.  These concertos have never been as popular as the original Concerts royaux and there appears to be currently no competition in this concerto.  KM was not impressed by Christophe Rousset’s now deleted recording of the complete 2-CD set of concertos from les Goûts réunis (Decca 458 271-2 – see review).
 
The opening movement of the concerto is performed suitably gravement et mésuré, with the oboe bearing the tune, the harp and violone offering discrete support.  This music is presented on two staves and offered as suitable for a variety of instruments; the oboe is especially well suited to this concerto.  The Allemande is lively, but the players bear in mind the injunction to observe temps légers.  In the stately Sarabande the tone of the oboe is especially apt.  A lively Air de diable and an elegant Sicilienne go some way to resolving my reservations about the programme as a whole – reservations which, in any case, are not serious.
 
If you are looking for an introduction to Couperin’s music, the starting place that I would recommend would be the Apothéose de Corelli and the Apothéose de Lully were it not that, incredibly, there appear to be no versions of these works currently in the catalogue apart from a version of the Apothéose de Corelli on a bargain-price collection of Italian music conducted by Fabio Biondi and Rinaldo Alessandini.  (Naïve V5100)  Look out for dealers who still have copies of the mid-price Savall (Astrée ES9947) or Gardiner (Erato) versions – or wait for them to return, as they surely must.
 
The overall effect of these performances is to present Versailles as a place of great elegance.  That is our modern view of the place, but it is to some extent coloured by the passage of time – the real palace was so lacking in sanitary facilities that the courtiers had to relieve themselves in corners of the corridors or even in the elegant Hall of Mirrors.  See Robin Briggs, Early Modern France, 1560-1715 (Oxford: OUP, 1977, 1998) p.153 for a down-to-earth characterisation of Versailles as “the background for [Louis XIV’s] gloomy years of defeat” and a place where “several thousand people were cooped up together ... with gambling and adultery as their main distractions.”  Briggs’ assertion that “the establishment of the court at Versailles coincided with the close of the great period of artistic patronage” [ibid.] is somewhat at odds with the starry-eyed version of Versailles in the Campanella Musica notes.  Not that music cannot flourish in insanitary circumstances, as witness Beethoven’s well-known problems in that department.
 
The recording is bright and immediate throughout.
 
The stiff cardboard gatefold presentation is a cut above the average, though the website rather gilds the lily:
 
The products of Campanella Musica are not packaged like the usual CD plastic “jewel cases”. They are a result of finest artistry of bookbinding: elaborate handwork creates small book wrappers which form the case of the CD. The special artistic quality of the recording is adequately partnered by its presentation. 
 
The CD is a tight fit in the right-hand section; I can foresee danger of its becoming scratched with repeated use.
 
The notes are rather brief – they don’t even give the dates of the composers.  The English version, apparently the work of an Anglophone, is comprehensible but often awkwardly literal.  The spelling ‘barock’ is hardly idiomatic in UK or US English.  Surely, too, the English notes should translate the description of the Marais Folies as “a set of variations” rather than the meaningless “a variation movement”.  (An over-literal rendering of “in Form eines Variationsatzes.”)
 
Detailed biographies of the three performers are given – would that the notes on the music had been so detailed.  Margit-Anna Süss and Hansjörg Schellenberger have both made a number of distinguished recordings; no details of their instruments are given, other than the indication on the front cover that Süss plays a ‘Barockharfe’ and that  Klaus Stoll, the first double-bass player with the Berlin Philharmonic, plays a four-stringed violone dating from 1610. 
 
The track details on the back cover are hard to read – very small print in white on a light-grey background.  Allemande is correctly spelled for track 9, but mis-spelled as Allemende for track 32.
 
I have already complained about the lack of detail in the notes.  Only Les Folies d’Espagne receives any attention – and even this soon wanders off the point to discuss the variation form as employed by other composers, including Rachmaninov.  (In what sense the Rachmaninov Corelli Variations qualify as historische Verkennung, awkwardly translated as “the historically mistaken pattern”, is not made clear.)
 
As a sampler of the music of late-17th- and early 18th-century France, decently performed and well recorded, this CD will do well enough – an entertaining hour of refined music-making – but the single-composer recordings which I have recommended will serve better, especially as they offer the original instrumentation.
 
Brian Wilson
 


 


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