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Ariane et Orphée - French Baroque Cantatas
Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
Orphée, cantate à voix seule et symphonie [13:06]
Michel LAMBERT (1610-1696)
Ombre de mon amant, air de cour [4:35]
Elisabeth JACQUET DE LA GUERRE (1665-1729)
Sonata for violin, obligato viola da gamba and bc No. 1 [13:09]
Philippe COURBOIS (1705-1730)
Ariane, cinquième cantate à voix seule et un violon [14:18]
Marin MARAIS (1656-1728)
Suite No. 1 in C: chaconne [8:41]
Hasnaa Bennani (soprano)
Ensemble Stravaganza (Anna Besson, Georges Barthel (transverse flute), Domitille Gilon, Fabien Roussel (violin), Robin Pharo (dessus de viole), Ronald Martin Alonso (viola da gamba), Vincent Fluckiger (theorbo, guitar), Thomas Soltani (harpsichord))/Domitille Gilon, Thomas Soltani
rec. 27-28 April, 9-10 June 2015, Église Réformée Luthérienne Saint Pierre, Paris, France. DDD
Texts and translations included
MUSO MU009 [60:26]

In the 17th century most music was written for performance in church or at the courts of monarchs and aristocrats. After the turn of the century the bourgeoisie started to play an increasingly important role in musical life. One of the symbols of this development was the emergence of public concerts. In Paris the Concert Spirituel was founded in 1725. At the same time music was heard in the domestic surroundings of the salons of the bourgeoisie. Here sonatas and cantatas were performed which were a token of the increasing influence of the Italian style. The present disc includes specimens of the repertoire which was performed at the salons: two cantatas, a sonata and a chaconne which reflect the ideal of the goûts réünis, the mixture of French and Italian elements.

The first thirty years of the 18th century was the heyday of the chamber cantata. On the one hand it had its roots in the Italian cantata whose form - a sequence of recitatives and arias - had been established by Alessandro Scarlatti. On the other it included elements of French opera as it had been established by Jean-Baptiste Lully. Recitatives and arias are less strictly separated and in many cantatas one or two melody instruments participate, mostly left to the choice of the interpreters. Also notable is the fact that most cantatas are for one singer who has to take the role of the narrator and of a specific character, for instance Ariadne or Orpheus. That brings us to the cantatas recorded here.

Mythology was the main source of inspiration for librettists and composers. This was part of the education of people from the upper classes of society. However, the world of gods, heroes and sorceresses was also an allegory of the real world. The gods were portrayed as human, with all the vices and virtues which are typical of mankind. Taking them as protagonists of librettos for operas and cantatas allowed the authors to express a moral - in cantatas usually in the closing aria - without being too explicit.

The present disc opens with Orphée by Jean-Philippe Rameau. His oeuvre includes seven cantatas of this kind, but they are not that well known, certainly not in comparison with his operas. Rameau saw a clear connection between the two genres. When he started to write operas he could bring his experience in the cantata genre to the task. In 1744 he wrote: "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 story of Orpheus was well suited for a dramatic work. It is not surprising that it was the subject of the two operas which are considered the first in history, by Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini, both called Euridice, after Orpheus' beloved whom he loses to the underworld and loses once again - and for ever - due to his impatience. That is the moral in the last aria of Rameau's cantata: "Many a man today would be happy had he not desired his happiness too soon."

The dramatic heart of the cantata is the sequence of two arias embracing a recitative which are allocated here to track 4. The booklet says air gracieux but that only relates to the first aria. The drama of the story is not fully realized here. In fact the performance is rather tame. I compared it with the recent recording by Sunhae Im and members of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Harmonia mundi, 2015) and they deliver a far more compelling and really theatrical account of this part. It also doesn't help that there is too much space between the tracks (for instance the first two) which damages the dramatic flow. The opening and ending of the cantata come off a little better, but are spoilt by Hasnaa Bennani's incessant and sometimes pretty wide vibrato which are off the mark.

The other cantata - written by Philippe Courbois - takes up another frequently used subject: the story of Ariadne and Theseus. It inspired many composers, for instance Haydn (Arianna a Naxos). It begins with a description of Ariadne's happiness as she sleeps "under the trees of a tranquil grove", not aware of Theseus' inconstancy. The first aria has the indication fort lent - very slow - and urges her not to wake up. "All too soon will you see your misfortune". The following recitative reveals the harsh reality and the ensuing aria is called prélude fort viste - very fast. This pair of recitative and aria is the most dramatic part of the cantata and although it is a little better than the Rameau Hasnaa Bennani and the Ensemble Stravaganza should have made more of it. Agnès Mellon and Barcarole (Alpha, 2005) are much more convincing here, even if one could argue that they probably go a little too far and make it sound too much like an Italian piece.

The mixture of Italian and French elements also comes to the fore in the two instrumental works. Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre was a child prodigy who played the harpsichord before Louis XIV at a very young age and from then on enjoyed his protection. She was one of the first composers in France who wrote sonatas for a melody instrument and basso continuo and incorporated Italian elements in her compositions. In 1707 she published a collection of sonatas for violin with an obbligato part for the viola da gamba. The Sonata I in d minor is one of the sonatas in which the latter has a solo role. This piece is well performed here and I enjoyed the ensemble's playing much more than in the cantatas where I found it sometimes rather bland.

The chaconne was one of the most popular forms in France in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Every Lully opera included such a piece in its last act. The chaconne by Marais is part of a suite which was included in a collection of music to be played by the musicians of the court when the King was going to bed. Lully also composed a number of pieces for this ceremony. Marais - although a representative of the French style - was one of the first to compose music which pointed in the direction of the trio sonata - another form which had its roots in the Italian style.

Ombre de mon amant is by far the most famous air de cour of Michel Lambert, one of the main composers of such songs in the 17th century and father-in-law of Lully. These songs are typical of the kind of music which was performed at court. It is for solo voice and basso continuo with ritornellos for instruments which are not specified. Here they are played by a treble viol and a violin. The text fits well into the programme of this disc: "Shadow of my lover, shadow ever plaintive, Alas! What do you want? I die." Hasnaa Bennani sings it rather well; fortunately she keeps her vibrato a little more in check than in the cantatas.

All in all I have mixed feelings about this disc. The cantatas of Rameau and Courbois are certainly not part of the standard repertoire and recordings of such works are welcome. However, their theatrical character is seriously underexposed here.

Johan van Veen



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