Monday 18 May 2015

Canto dell dame, and Music for Marie Fel - day two of London Festival of Baroque Music

Carolyn Sampson
Carolyn Sampson
Canto delle dame and Music for Marie Fel; Maria Cristina Kiehr, Concerto Soave, Jean-Marc Aymes, Carolyn Sampson, Matt Barber, Ex Cathedra, Jeffrey Skidmore; Day two of the London Festival of Baroque Music at St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 16 2015
Star rating: 4.0
Women as composers and as performers in Baroque music at day two of the London Festival of Baroque Music

Having been well and truly launched by Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan (see my review) on Friday, Saturday 16 May 2015 saw the London Festival of Baroque Music addressing the festival theme of women in baroque music with a pair of concerts at St John's Smith Square

Maria Cristina Kiehr -  © Catherine Peillon
Maria Cristina Kiehr -  © Catherine Peillon
First soprano Maria Christina Kiehr and Concerto Soave, artistic director Jean-Marc Aymes, in Canto delle dame, a programme of music by 17th century Italian female composers with music, both sacred and secular, by Barbara Strozzi, Francesca Caccini, Caterina Assandra, and Isabella Leonarda (along with music by Gioanpietro Del Buono and Benedetto Re). 

Then soprano Caroline Sampson and Ex Cathedra, conductor Jeffrey Skidmore, with actor Matt Barber, presented Music for Marie Fel, bringing to life the world for the 18th century French soprano, with music by Michel-Richard de Lalande, Jean-Joseph Cassandea de Mondonville, Joseph-Hector Fiocco, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Louis Lacoste, Jean-Joseph Mouret and of course Jean-Philippe Rameau, for whom Marie Fel sang a number of roles.

The Viola da Gamba Player (»Gambenspielerin«), c. 1630–1640, (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden) by Bernardo Strozzi, believed to be of Barbara Strozzi
The Viola da Gamba Player, c. 1630–1640,
(Gemäldegalerie, Dresden) by Bernardo Strozzi,
believed to be of Barbara Strozzi
There was something of a flourishing of female composers in 17th century Italy. Mainly aristocratic women or nuns (or both), they seemed to be able to thrive in the experimental hothouse atmosphere of 17th century Italian music. Both Francesca Caccini (1587-1641) and Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) were from artistic families. Francesca Caccini's father, Giulio Caccini being a composer who was a member of the Florentine circle associated with the early development of opera, and Barbara Strozzi's father was the poet Giulio Strozzi (she may also be related to the painter Bernado Strozzi who seems to have painter her), and she studied with Cavalli. Though being a prominent, public female artist had its problems and Barbara Strozzi was reputed to be a prostitute. Perhaps that is why female composers thrived in the safer, all-female atmosphere of the nunnery, and these too published music.

Isobella Leonarda (1620-1704) was from a prominent Novara family and entered the convent at 16. Some 200 of her works were published in Bologna, she was known as the Muse of Novara and admired by French scholar and composer Sebastien de Brossard. Caterina Assandra (c1590-after 1618) was born in Pavia and spent her life at a convent in Lomello near Milan, but she studied music with Benedetto Re, maestro di capella at Pavia Cathedral. She published two collections of motets and even included a pair of Benedetto Re's pieces in the second collection.

Concerto Soave is a small ensemble founded by Maria Cristina Kier and Jean-Marc Aymes with Alessandro Ciccolini and Alba Roca, violins, Christine Plubeau, viola da gamba, Mara Galassi, harp and Jean-Marc Aymes, harpsichord, organ and director, and Maria Cristina Kier, soprano. Their programme Canto delle dame started with a sequence of sacred music by Isabella Leonarda, Goanpetro Del Buono, Francesca Caccini, and Caterina Assandra along with instrumental music by Benedetto Re (one of those published by Caterina Assandra) and Isabella Leonarda.

Concerto Soave
Concerto Soave
Much of the music was in the modern (17th century) style of a single voice singing in flexible, free recitative with significant ornamentation, and varied instrumental accompaniment. The structures of many of the works was similarly free. This requires a singer alert to both music and text, with a fluency of ornamentation. With her plangent and rather direct tone and affecting way with the music, Maria Cristina Kiehr was ideal. Fluently weaving the ornaments into the vocal line and providing an admirably flexible way with text and music. The ensemble were more than simple support and formed partners in the music, weaving lines round the voice. In Caterina Assandra's Duo Seraphim on of the violins duetted with the soprano, the two forming the duo of the title. In the same composer's O Salutaris hostia the relatively plain vocal line was surrounded by lively, dancing violins. Whereas in Francesca Caccini's gently expressive Maria, dolce Maria, accompaniment and ornament were subsidiary to the expressive combination of music and text.

The transcription from The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (1609-19) by Peter Phillips (c1560-1628) of Giulio Caccini's madrigal Amarilli served as a reminder of the influence of this music and to mark the start of the secular section of the concert with Jean-Marc Aymes moving to harpsichord from organ. The final two works in the programme were larger scale pieces, Francesca Caccini's madrigal Lasciatemi qui solo and Barbara Strozzi's solo cantata Hor ch'Apollo.

Francesca Caccini's Lasciatemi qui solo sets a poem of five stanzas, each stanza except the last finishing with the lines Lasciatemi morire (Let me die), and the final line of the poem makes it clear that she is now dying. Performed with just soprano, harp and harpsichord, it was a work of utmost simplicity and wonderfully powerful directness. Maria Cristina Kiehr gave a quietly intense and concentrated performance, despite the complexity of the ornamentation folded into the vocal line. By the ending, all were profoundly moved. Barbara Strozzi's Hor ch'Apollo was more dramatic and almost operatic at times. A long poem set in a free, flexible recitative accompanied by just harp, harpsichord and viola da gamba, there were constant short instrumental ritornelli which picked up on the melodic material of the preceding recitative. Occasionally, Strozzi surprised us with more structured music and at the end, the piece became positively aria like with full instrumental accompaniment.

The concert was full of discoveries and though I knew of Francesca Caccini and Barbara Strozzi's work, the pieces in the programme were all new to me. For those exploring for the first time the good news is that Brighton Early Music Festival is also looking at women in Baroque music and will be staging Francesca Caccini's opera La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d'Alcina in Brighton this autumn.

After a break for refreshment, we returned for a very different exploration of female musical talent. The soprano Maria Fel made a very big impression during her long career in 18th century Paris (born in 1713, she made her debut in 1734 and gave her final concert in 1769). Music for Marie Fel combined music from soprano Carolyn Sampson and the Ex Cathedra Consort and Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore, with a dramatic narration performed by the actor Matt Barber (best known for his appearances in Downton Abbey).

Marie Fel, by Quentin de La Tour (1757)
Marie Fel
by Quentin de La Tour (1757)
Marie Fel acted as something of a muse for the opera composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, and he wrote a number of roles for her. We heard a scene for her character La Folie from Platee, in which La Folie plays her magic lyre and sings a series of short arias in a variety of styles which both demonstrated the character's madness, and gave Rameau a chance to show off Marie Fel's talents in a variety of styles. Carolyn Sampson did not disappoint; here and throughout the programme she was a model of stylish poise and Gallic charm. She also brought a visual element to the programme with four dramatic changes of outfit! In the scene from Platee the chorus and remaining characters were all supplied by the flexible talents of the Ex Cathedra Consort (with, rightly, two haut-contre voices on the alto line).

The range of Rameau's writing for Marie was demonstrated by the inclusion of a sequence of scenes, including a charming gavotte, from La lyre enchantee from Les surprise de l'Amour which was revived by Rameau in 1757 with an entirely new role for Marie, the siren Parthenope. And here Carolyn Sampson combined charm with fine technique in the roulades. The other selection from Rameau was Telaire's lament Tristes apprets from Castor et Pollux, which was simple, yet profound and bleakly affecting with Carolyn Sampson complemented with a fine bassoon solo.

Marie sang in operas by other composers, and we heard an elegant lament from Philomele by Louis Lacoste (1675-1750), the work in which she made her debut at the Academie royale de la music (Paris Opera) in 1734, though we did not hear any of the Italian operas that she sang. We did hear a charming scene from Daphnis et Alcimadure, by Jean-Joseph Cassanea de Mondonville (1711-1772), an opera in the Occitan language (the language of the south, the Langue d'Oc, which Marie would have spoken as she was originally from Bordeaux). This was a song about trilling birds, complete with trills in both flutes and in voice too!

Marie's singing wasn't all opera, and throughout her life she sang in the famous Concerts Spirituels, as well as singing grands motets for the King (Louis XV). We heard a wide selection of sacred music, ranging from the Te Deumi by Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726), to Laudate pueri Dominum by Joseph-Hector Fiocco (1703-1741), as well as a piece written for her by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Most of these were excerpts, stylishly performed with contributions from the Ex Cathedra Consort. What was noticeable was how most composers seemed to take advantage of Marie Fel's fluency in roulades and passage-work. Her last appearance at one of the Concerts Spirituels was in 1769 in Michel-Richard de Lalande's Cantate Domino from which we heard the Viderunt omnes, a striking movement which was effectively a trio for soprano, oboe and bassoon.

With such a disparate and slightly bitty selection to the musical programme, it was clearly felt that there had to be some way of linking this. The actor Matt Barber provided a narration (written by Simon Robson), in the person of King Louis XV. For me, the narration was rather too long and the tone was too jocular, with too many bad jokes, and I think that something more concise and soberly informative would have worked better. The programme was over-long, lasting nearly two and a half hours including interval, and there was a sense of over-dosing on delight.

But regarding Carolyn Sampson's performance, I have nothing but praise. This was a very large programme for her, there was only one major item in which she did not perform. Many of the items came from larger works, and would have given the soloist time for a break, but here Carolyn Sampson moved from one to the other, tireless and delightful. She was consistently stylish and charming, evincing great delight and bringing the operatic characters to life. She was ably and stylishly supported by Jeffrey Skidmore (who wrote the informative programme note) and Ex Cathedra. This is repertoire which Jeffrey Skidmore, Ex Cathedra and Carolyn Sampson have explored on disc (see their website), and the programme will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 next Sunday.

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