Wednesday 15 July 2015

Couperin, Blow and Charpentier for Bastille Day at Wigmore Hall

Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo
Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo
Francois Couperin, John Blow, Marc-Antoine Charpentier; Samuel Boden, Thomas Walker, Stephane Degout, Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen; the Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 14 2015
Star rating: 4.0

French and English music in thoughtful vein

Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo celebrated Bastille Day at the Wigmore Hall (14 July 2015) with a concert of French and English music whose theme moved from the celebratory commemoration of Francois Couperin's L'Apotheose de Corelli (ou Le Parnasse) with baritone Stephane Degout speaking the movement titles, to the John Blow's profoundly elegiac An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell with tenors Samuel Boden and Thomas Walker, to finally the richly texture Lenten penitence of Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Trois lecons de Tenebres pour le mercredi saint.

L'Apotheose de Corelli by Francois Couperin (1668-1733) is a trio sonata (here played by two violins, viola da gamba and theorbo with Jonathan Cohen directing from the harpsichord. A multi-section work, each one has a title (spoken in French by Stephan Degout) which describes the reception of the composer Corelli by the Muses on Mount Parnassus and his installation next to Apollo. This might 'only' be a trio sonata but Couperin's music is wonderfully sonorous, combining elegance with stylish expressiveness. Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo combined rhythmic liveliness with some finely expressive playing and a lovely sense of the sonority of Couperin's music.

John Blow (1649-1708) was organist at Westminster Abbey and the teacher of Henry Purcell, who made way for Purcell to take over his post and then returned to melancholy duty after Purcell's early death. An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell is Blow's setting of a poem by John Dryden (a poet with whom Purcell collaborated extensively), for two tenors (Samuel Boden and Thomas Walker), two recorders and viola da gamba with Jonathan Cohen directing from the organ.

Though Blow divides Dryden's three verses into sections, the overall tone of the piece is elegiac with mourning flutes (recorders) to the fore, and with the two tenors used mainly in duet though each gets a solo section in the middle. The tenor parts are often sung by counter-tenor, but here benefited from the Samuel Boden's lyrical high tenor, and Thomas Walker's virile and no less high tenor. Starting with a gravely elegant intertwining of recorders and voices, the work progressed in a relaxed form of expressive arioso with Blow always alert to the text. Thomas Walker seem slightly challenged by the high tessitura of his solo, but gave us a finely dramatic performance, whilst Samuel Boden's The power of harmony emphasised the music's lyric beauty. The work finished with a return to the intertwining tenor voices. Throughout, both singers were highly attentive to words in a work which relies very much on the combination of text and music.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) composed quite a number of setting of the Lecons de Tenebres, and we heard three for Ash Wednesday (Mercredi Saint) but not a set as the first and last lesson dated from the 1680's and used a baritone soloist (Stephane Degout) and the middle one dated from the 1690's and used a high tenor (Samuel Boden). For the first lesson Stephane Degout was accompanied by an ensemble of two recorders, violin, two violas, viola da gamba, and theorbo with Jonathan Cohen directing from the organ. Stephane Degout sang with a firm, dark flexible tones and a strong sense of the words. His highly fluid vocal line had a lovely strength to it as Charpentier cast the setting as sombre but highly expressive arioso, offsetting this with the glorious richness of the tonal colours of the ensemble, with Stephen Degout's voice firmly at the centre of an imaginative ensemble. Though each verse was set separately, the whole had a real coherence of timbre and tint.

In the second lesson, Samuel Boden was accompanied by just viola da gamba and theorbo, with Jonathan Cohen on the organ.  Here it was Samuel Boden's beautifully lyric voice which was to the fore, but there was a firmness to his fluid high tenor too. He was complemented by some highly expressive viola da gamba playing from Jonathon Manson.  For the final lesson we returned to something like the forces used in the opening, except this time with two violins and no viola. There was a long instrumental introduction with the recorders and violins echoing each other before Stephane Degout's entry with the voice firmly in the midst of the ensemble, though this time the vocal line was rather more expressively melismatic.

Not for the first time, I have a moan about the programme notes which neglected some of the detail of what and when. No information as to the original performances of the Blow and Charpentier was given, no mention of the discussions which have taken place in Purcell and Blow scholarship about whether to use counter-tenors or high tenors, certainly no explanation for the choice of the Charpentier lessons and no mention of using two different soloists.

This was a beautifully satisfying concert, with some very fine playing and singing realising some great vocal music from the 17th century, though I have to wonder whether it might not be possible to hear some of Francois Couperin's other trio sonatas!

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