Through the centuries the story of Ulysses, the leading character of Homer's Odyssey
, has fired the imagination of authors and composers. The first great monument in music history which had his adventures as its subject is Monteverdi's opera Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria
. This disc is also devoted to this story, focusing on music from the French baroque. The programme is embraced by extracts from the opera Ulysse
by Jean-Féry Rebel. This work is available in a complete recording
under the direction of Hugo Reyne.
The disc starts off with the overture and three dances from this opera. They are nicely played, but in this pocket-sized scoring they lose some of their impact. They are followed by the cantata Les Sirènes
by the relatively little-known Thomas-Louis Bourgeois. Recently a disc with cantatas, including the present one, was reviewed here
. It opens with a prélude
, which is followed by three pairs of recitative and arias. The first pair is about the seduction of the Sirens' singing; the singer impersonates them: "Love, by our voices, calls to you". The sweetness of their singing is perfectly depicted by Clara Rottsolk. Then Pallas comes to Ulysses' rescue and he urges his crew to flee; this is eloquently expressed in the next aria: "Flee! Flee! Escape from this dangerous peril".
Not all the pieces on this disc are directly related to the figure of Ulysses. Some have been chosen to illustrate aspects of his story. The sonata by Rebel, La Fidelle
(the faithful one), has been selected as a reference to Penelope, who is faithful to her husband and eagerly awaits his return. In his sonatas Rebel was strongly influenced by the Italian style which comes to the fore here in the marked contrasts within this piece. It begins with an improvisatory section over a bass pedal note. Julie Andrijeski delivers a compelling and theatrical performance.
In 1724/25 Michel Pignolet de Montéclair published a collection of six Concerts
in the form of suites for transverse flute and basso continuo. The fifth of these has the title La Guerre
, and this has been chosen to illustrate the violence which was very much part of Ulysses' journey. Only six of the 14 movements are played here, this time at the oboe. That is a legitimate alternative to the flute, in contrast to the trumpet which is used in the recording by the Ensemble Pian & Forte (review
). The idiosyncrasies of these pieces are convincingly put across by Debra Nagy, Emily Walhout and Michael Sponseller.
Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre was a child prodigy who performed as a singer and harpsichordist at the court of Louis XIV at the age of five. She enjoyed the protection of the King and made a remarkable career as a performer and especially as a composer. She wrote music for the keyboard and chamber music for violin, the first opera ever composed by a woman in France and chamber cantatas. Le sommeil d'Ulisse
is about Ulysses having aroused the wrath of Neptune, the god of the sea, by blinding his son Polyphemus. In the first aria the waves of the sea are depicted in the basso continuo part. The next aria is called Tempêst
in which the violin and the oboe illustrate the storm which has been called up by Neptune. Halfway the soprano joins them. Minerva is then called in aid and she helps Ulysses and his men out. "Providing a charming refuge, The Goddess assuaged Ulysses' pain with a mysterious slumber, rendering Neptune's anger vain". Then follows a gorgeous aria, called Sommeil
(sleep), which is superbly sung by Clara Rottsolk, with beautiful playing of the recorder and mute violin. The use of an organ in some arias in this cantata seems a little suspect. I wonder whether it was used in performances of this kind of music. I can understand that a harpsichord was considered less suitable, but a theorbo could have been a better option. The cantata ends with a long recitative and an aria which includes the moral of the story.
At the end of the programme we return to Rebel's opera Ulysse
. We get three extracts from the last act, which describes Ulysses' return to his wife Penelope. In the recitative and the air, interrupted by a chaconne, she expresses her joy at seeing Ulysses again.
The concept of this disc - a selection of music around a mythical figure - may not be very original, but it has been worked out quite well. Musically speaking the first tracks, with instrumental pieces from Rebel's opera, are not entirely satisfying. However, that is more than compensated for by the rest of the programme. The two cantatas are jewels and so is Rebel's sonata. The performances are outstanding: Clara Rottsolk has a particularly beautiful voice which I already noticed in my review of her disc with cantatas by Alessandro Scarlatti (review
). I referred to the way she performed the recitatives, and that is also impressive here. Her voice can sound very sweet, as I mentioned above, but the description of the storm in Jacquet de la Guerre's cantata isn't lost on her either. The instrumentalists are just as good, with violin and oboe both exploring the expressive and theatrical traits in their parts to the full. Emily Walhout and Michael Sponseller deliver excellent support.
The acoustic is pretty much ideal as it reflects the intimacy of a salon in early 18th century Paris, where this kind of repertoire was performed. The only regret I have is the modern pronunciation. That hasn't spoilt my enjoyment in any way, though. This is a delicious disc.
Johan van Veen