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Nicolas BERNIER (1664 - 1734)
Trois visages d'Hécate
overture [02:55]
Diane [15:14]
L'Aurore (exc) [04:31]
L'enlèvement de Proserpine [18:54]
Apollon (exc) [10:53]
Médée [23:26]
Lieselot De Wilde (soprano)
Apotheosis/Korneel Bernolet
rec. 2016, Kapel van de Zusters van Liefde, Ghent, Belgium
Texts included, no translations
ET'CETERA KTC1576 [75:56]

From the early years of the 18th century onwards the Italian style grew in popularity in France. At the Concert Spirituel, a concert series founded in 1725, compositions by Italian masters including Vivaldi were frequently played. The growing popularity of Italian music also manifested itself by French composers embracing two genres typical of that style: the solo concerto and the chamber cantata. The latter genre is the subject of this disc, which includes three cantatas by Nicolas Bernier, one of the most prolific composers of such cantatas, but today almost completely overshadowed by the likes of Clérambault and Campra.

Bernier was born in Mantes-la-Jolie, northwest of Paris, and probably received his first musical education in the maîtrise of the collegiate church of Notre Dame there and in that of the Cathedral of nearby Evreux. He then studied with Antonio Caldara in Rome. From 1694 to 1698 he was head of the maîtrise of Chartres Cathedral and then was appointed in the same position at St Germain-l'Auxerrois in Paris. A token of the appreciation of his activities as a composer was his appointment as maître de musique of the Sainte Chapelle, as successor to Marc-Antoine Charpentier. From 1723 until his death Bernier also acted as one of the sous-maîtres de musique of the Chapelle Royale.

As a composer, he contributed to both religious and secular music. He published two books of petits motets for solo voices and basso continuo, some with additional instruments, wrote a number of grands motets for solo voices, choir and orchestra, a set of nine Leçons de ténèbres, a Mass and a Te Deum; the latter two works have been lost. Bernier was also one of the first who devoted himself to the chamber cantata: he published seven books of cantatas and a single cantata, bringing the total to 39. In this genre he mixed the traditional French style with Italian influences.

The title of this disc refers to Hecate, a three-headed goddess in Greek mythology. The three cantatas recorded here are about three women, each connected to the three heads: Diana, patron of the hunt, Proserpina, goddess of the night, and Medea, Hecate's own high priestess.

The disc opens with Diane, a cantata for soprano and basso continuo, preceded by an overture, taken from another cantata, L'Aurore. The cantata comprises three pairs of recitative and aria. The arias all have an indication which refers to their character: sérieux, gay and tendre. The cantata tells of Diana discovering a remote spot in the woods, where Amor and the gods of love take a nap. Annoyed that they disturb the lives of so many people, she decides to shoot them, with the help of her nymphs. The gods of the woods celebrate her decision in an air gay, but the noise wakes up Amor and he uses his last arrow to hit Diana. The cantata ends with the moral: let us spare love as long as he slumbers, and fear the day that he wakes up. In vain will we call a halt to his arrows if we do not know which he keeps aside for us.

Notable here, as in the other cantatas, is Bernier's expression of the text. In the first recitative the word "dormoient" (were asleep) is illustrated by long notes, and in the first aria the swaying rhythm depicts the sleep of the gods. The next recitative describes how Diana approaches them, and her steps are graphically illustrated in the basso continuo. The song of praise of the gods of the wood in the second aria is illustrated by a vivid rhythm, whereas the closing aria, which includes the moral, is rather restrained.

L'enlèvement de Proserpine is a cantata for soprano avec simphonie, meaning one or more instruments. In this case, the violin partners the singer, and this word is deliberately chosen, because the violin plays a substantial role in this piece. This cantata is about Jupiter, who falls in love with Proserpina, but she manages to escape him. However, it opens with a description of the Titans, attacking the earth and trying to destroy it. The violin illustrates the fear of the people by playing in its lower register. In the first aria, Jupiter is asked to intervene and protect the earth. This aria is quite dramatic, and clearly shows the Italian influence in Bernier's cantatas. In the second aria, the violin takes a back seat, as it enters after the soprano. However, it plays an important role again in the last recitative, illustrating elements of the text.

As one would expect, Médée is the most dramatic piece. It is scored for soprano, two instruments and basso continuo. The two treble instruments are here the transverse flute and the violin. The instrumental introduction consists of dramatic contrasts, reflected by a differentiation between slow and fast tempi. Medea suddenly intervenes, accusing Jason of betraying her, and calling him cruel. The recitative is followed by an air viste, which is a kind of rage aria, which we know from Italian operas of the time. Here the violin plays a major role. In contrast, the flute partners the soprano in the next aria, with the indication tendrement. It is a mixture of a lament and plea, which is graphically illustrated through melody and harmony. In the last aria, which includes the moral of the story, the two instruments are both involved.

In between, the ensemble plays extracts from other cantatas, either instrumental movements, or vocal items performed instrumentally. They bear further witness to Bernier's skills as a composer of vocal and instrumental music. He is rather poorly represented on disc, so this recording deserves a wholehearted welcome. The selection of music, including three very fine cantatas, and the quality of the performances provide further arguments for this disc.

I had never heard Liselotte De Wilde before, but I hope to hear more from her. I am impressed by her performances: she has a nice voice, which is excellently suited to this repertoire. She delves deep into these pieces in order to bring out the emotions Bernier has set to music. One could argue that her performance of the first aria from L'enlèvement de Proserpine may be a little too Italian, but I prefer this to a performance which is too restrained. The instrumentalists play an important part in communicating the events and the feelings of the protagonists. Unfortunately, the pronunciation is in modern French, as in most other recordings of operas and cantatas. There is still a long way to go in this part of performance practice. It is also disappointing that the booklet includes the lyrics without any translations. That does not help to truly appreciate Bernier's treatment of the texts by those who don't understand French.

However, from a musical point of view this disc provides an ideal first acquaintance with the art of a neglected composer.

Johan van Veen


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