Un Concert pour Madame de Sévigné
Marc Hantaï, Georges Barthel (transverse flute), Philippe Pierlot (viola da gamba), Eduardo Egüez (theorbo)
rec. 2009, Église de Notre-Dame de l'Assomption, Basse-Bodeux, Belgium. DDD FLORA FLO2110 [70:10]
Reviewing a disc issued by the Belgian label Flora is often a rather frustrating affair. On the one hand I have never heard a really bad recording. On the contrary, most of their discs include some of the finest singing and playing you will ever be able to hear. However, the production is quite the opposite: the presentation and documentation are often a mess. This disc - recorded in 2009 but released only recently - is a telling example.
When a programme is presented under the title "A concert for Madame de Sévigné" you would expect the liner-notes to explain who that lady was and what was the connection between her and the composers and their music. As this disc comes without a booklet we are left completely in the dark. What is more: several pieces are listed in the track-list without the name of the composer. There is a list of sources, but these omit names of composers and mostly the year that they were put together. The scoring is also not given: most of them are played on two transverse flutes, with viola da gamba and theorbo playing the basso continuo. The exceptions are indicated in the header.
Let me try to make some order out of this chaos. For information about Madame Sévigné we have to turn to Wikipedia. "Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné (5 February 1626 – 17 April 1696) was a French aristocrat, remembered for her letter-writing. Most of her letters, celebrated for their wit and vividness, were addressed to her daughter. She is revered in France as one of the great icons of French literature", thus the opening of the article. Her father was killed during the English attack on the isle of Rhé in July 1627; his wife died not long after him, and Marie was left an orphan at the age of seven. Her maternal grandparents then took care of her. Her grandfather died in 1636 and her uncle became her guardian who gave her a very good education. In 1644 she married Henri, marquis de Sévigné, a nobleman from Brittany. In 1651 her husband died and left her with two children. She never remarried and spent much of her time raising her daughter and her son. She divided her time between the Sévigné manor house in Les Rochers and Paris, where she often visited the salons. In 1669 her daughter married; when her husband was appointed as lieutenant-governor of Provence the couple moved to that part of the country, and two years later the correspondence between mother and daughter started, which lasted until Marie's death in 1696.
The article includes no references to Madame de Sévigné's interest in music. The article on Jean-Baptiste Lully in New Grove mentions the fact that de Sévigné greatly admired his setting of the Miserere. However, on a French website I found this: "The correspondence of Madame de Sévigné offers a wealth of information on the performances of tragédies en musique by Quinault and their reception. The Marquise and her correspondents talk about what they saw but also what they read, and their reactions to the news of the day. Moreover, she cites the booklets by Quinault on many occasions (...), applying them to a wide variety of situations." Philippe Quinault (1635-1688) was a prolific author of librettos many of which Lully set to music. This could well be the reason so many pieces by Lully are included in the programme.
A number of these are taken from a collection which was put together by André Danican Philidor. It has been preserved in a manuscript which is dated 1705. Apparently these are partly original compositions for two treble instruments and bc, but also some arrangements of vocal pieces. The collection mentions Lully as the composer, but it has emerged that a number of pieces are in fact from the pen of Marin Marais, the famous gambist who was one of Lully's pupils. They were first published in 1692 in Marais's own Pièces en trio pour les Flûtes, Violon, & Dessus de Viole. Two of these are the Menuet and Gavotte included here (track 16). It is not specified on what kind of instruments these pieces should be played. It is assumed they were intended for treble viols, but the American oboist Bruce Haynes suggests that they may represent some of the earliest compositions for the recently developed oboe. There seems to be no objection to playing them on transverse flute as is the case here. An earlier source of pieces by Lully, also put together by Philidor, is the Recueil de plusieurs belles pièces de symphonie of 1695, also preserved in manuscript. It includes two pieces from stage works by Lully (tracks 18 and 19) and Les plaisirs de Mr Gaultier. According to the text added to the tracks on the disc it is also from Lully's pen. It could be an arrangement of a lute piece by one of the composers with the name Gaultier.
According to the track-list the Deuxième Suitte de Pièces à deux dessus by Jacques Martin Hotteterre dates from 1712 and is taken from the Première suite de pièces etc. That defies any logic: that suite is not a collection, but a single suite. In fact the second suite was also published separately in 1717 as the op. 6. It is for two treble instruments to the choice of the performers and has a basso continuo part ad libitum. That part is omitted here. Obviously this music was written long after the death of Madame de Sévigné, and one wonders why it is included in a programme devoted to her.
Quite interesting is the 'suite' by Marin Marais of pieces for viola da gamba and bc. These are not from one of his printed books of viol pieces, but from the so-called Panmure manuscript, which is preserved in the National Library of Scotland. In Style and Performance for Bowed String Instruments in French Baroque Music (2012) Mary Cyr writes: "The manuscript of Marais's works that belongs to the Panmure Collection in the National Library of Scotland is important for several reasons. Not only does it represent the largest single manuscript source of Marais's viol music, but it also preserves works (or versions of works) by him that are otherwise unknown. The Panmure manuscripts contain 71 pieces and 12 doubles by Marais. Dating of the manuscripts that contain music by Marais bears great importance in relation to our understanding of his career and devotion to the viol. From the evidence that has been adduced thus far, it appears likely that the Panmure manuscripts contain his earliest extant works for the viol." (p. 162) I don't know whether these pieces were intended for viola da gamba alone, without a basso continuo. For this recording Philippe Pierlot restored the basso continuo part which is played here on the theorbo.
Needless to say that this is a most interesting and in fact very important recording as it brings us some unknown works by Marais alongside pieces from collections which are seldom recorded. The standard of playing is - as with almost any Flora recording - of the highest order. A recording like this deserves a presentation of the same standard. I have tried to bring together some information which helps to put this music into perspective. However, that is not the job of a reviewer but of the producer. It is time that this label got its act together. It is telling that on the Flora site we read under the header "Latest News" about "two releases to celebrate the end of 2012" ...
Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687) Ah, quand reviendra-t-il [1:48] La jeune Iris [1:32] Sarabande [1:53] Chaconne [3:29] Robert DE VISÉE (1650?-1732?) Entrée d'Apollon for lute solo (after Lully) [3:12] Jean-Baptiste LULLY Simphonie [1:22] Sarabande [2:24] ? GAUTIER (?-?) Recit [2:30] Jacques-Martin HOTTETERRE le Romain (1673-1763) Deuxième Suitte de pièces à deux dessus [15:03] Jean-Baptiste LULLY Ah que l'amour cause d'Alarmes [2:47] Marin MARAIS (1656-1728) Menuet - Gavotte [1:55] Jean-Baptiste LULLY Les plaisirs de Mr Gaultier [2:07] Prélude du sommeil d'Armide [3:29] Canaries [1:17] Marin MARAIS Suite for viola da gamba and bc [ms Panmure] [16:55] Jean-Baptiste LULLY Symphonie [4:41] Passacaille [2:21]