Wednesday 30 November 2016

Lots of taste but not much excess: French baroque at Kings Place

Louis XIV in 1701 - Hyacinthe Rigaud
Louis XIV in 1701 - Hyacinthe Rigaud
Le coucher du Soleil François Couperin, Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Clérambault, Leclair, Mondonville, Rameau; Robyn Allegra Parton, Instruments of Time and Truth, Edward Higginbottom; Kings Place
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Apr 13 2016
Star rating: 3.5

A varied, if too polite, programme exploring a relatively neglected corner of French baroque

Part of "Baroque Unwrapped" at Kings Place, this "Weekend of Excessively Good Taste" was curated by conductor and baritone Eamonn Dougan. Together with his friends, colleagues and mentors he put together a series exploring the relatively neglected music of the French Baroque. The Friday evening concert (25 November 2016) was the second of the mini-festival, with Edward Higginbottom directing Instruments of Time and Truth with Robyn Allegra Parton in Le coucher du Soleil – Music from the last years of Louis XIV and the Dauphin with music by François Couperin, Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Clérambault, Leclair, Mondonville, and Rameau.

Edward Higginbottom introduced and directed a varied programme focusing on and around François Couperin. We started off in 1690. Couperin was organist at Saint-Gervais, a job that had been lined up for him until he was old enough. He was at the heart of the musical life of Paris, coming from a musical dynasty going back centuries. He was among the first to absorb Italian influences, particularly those of Corelli, thanks to his friendship with the Abbé Mathieu who gave him access to his extensive library, and who put on concerts of repertoire more eclectic than the rather exclusive French court would sanction.

This was the beginning of a movement towards a less distinctive French style of music, as epitomised by Lully (who was actually an Italian, but never mind), towards a more metropolitan sound-world. We would begin to hear what the contemporary critic Le Cerf described as the "wild melodies … frightful keys … profusion of inappropriate ornaments" that set the refined French apart from the vulgar Italians.

Context is all. It wasn’t long before the Germans were infusing French dances into their music. For a French musician in the final years of the Sun King’s reign it must have been obvious that the hermetically sealed court of Versailles was not the future, so Couperin and colleagues were right to expand their horizons.

The programme also featured music of Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, child prodigy, performer and composer in a range of forms, who managed to keep her career going after her marriage (though Higginbottom suggested her success was due to the fact she was also very easy on the eye). We heard works from the slightly younger Leclair, with key changes in his violin sonata that made us sit up, though they were a long way from being "frightful", and Clérambault whose "cantate" Abraham was his job application for a post at Saint-Cyr, an institution for what HIgginbottom described as "wayward" girls; this combined French-style recitative and more Italianate arias.

In the second half we edged forward in time, with de Mondonville’s Pièces de clavecin avec voix ou violon, Psalm settings written for the multi-talented Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre to sing and play. We moved forward to domestic music by Rameau before going back to Couperin’s epic Apothéose de Corelli, his journey to Mount Parnassus.

Each number was introduced by Higginbottom, which made for a rather disjointed evening – personally I would have preferred to have less punctuation; we were a concert audience, not a lecture theatre of students.

The best performances of the evening came from the violins, the sinuous duets, and the virtuosic solos of Bojan Čičić. The balance didn’t seem ideal in this state-of-the-art acoustic, with the harpsichord sounding a little harsh and the viola da gamba overpowered by the muscular violins (not that I minded). I wasn’t convinced by Robyn Allegra Parton’s way with the period style; though she produced some ravishing piano moments and dramatic fortes. But she was glued to the score throughout and yet made too many mistakes with her French to convince me that she was really at home here.

Overall, a polite evening out. Lots of taste but, alas, not enough excess, either of a French or Italian nature.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

Instruments of Time and Truth
Edward Higginbottom – director
Bojan Čičić, Dan Edgar – violins
Reiko Ichise – viola da gamba
Robyn Allegra Parton – soprano

F Couperin (1668-1733) Sonate: La Pucelle (1690)
F Couperin Première Leçon de Ténèbres
Jacquet de La Guerre Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729) Pièces de clavecin
Clérambault (1676-1749) Cantate Abraham (1715)
Leclair (1697-1764) Violin Sonata in C Major, Op 2/3
Mondonville (1711-1772) Petits motets - Pièces de clavecin avec voix ou violon (Op. 5) (1748)
In decachordo psalterio – Regina terrae – Benefac Domine
Rameau (1683-1764) Deuxième concert from Pièces de clavecin en Concert
F Couperin L'apothéose de Corelli (1724)

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