IN: Reviews

Welcome Intro to Courbois in Constrained Performance


Reading the catalogue of Fringe concerts attached to the Boston Early Music Festival is a tantalizing experience – program after program sounds so interesting, so beautiful, and so unusual, that one is hard put to choose which to go to. After reading through a few day’s worth of concerts, the most sensible method of choice seems to be spreading the catalogue out on the wall and throwing darts blindfold. Lacking both a suitable wall and darts, I resorted to the expedient of picking a handful of concerts with whose artists I did not happen to be previously familiar. Therefore, at half past one on June 13, I went to the Church of the Covenant on Newbury Street to hear the Ensemble Leonarda perform French cantatas.

The program was in fact even more elaborate and more interesting than the catalogue implied, being a fascinatingly varied combination of four different composers, including both vocal and instrumental works. Two trio sonatas, one by Michel Corrette (the youngest composer on the program, he having lived through 98% of the eighteenth century) and the other by Francois Couperin (died 1730), a single solo harpsichord rondeau, also by Couperin, two cantatas by Philippe Courbois (who died three years before Couperin), and part of a longer cantata by Nicolas Bernier (who died a year after Couperin). Couperin “le Grand” is well known and requires no introduction; the others are less commonly performed – which is a great pity, as they were all splendid. The Courbois cantatas in particular were first-rate. However, since these are soon to be published in their first modern edition (as the very informative program notes mentioned), it is to be hoped that Courbois will be far more frequently heard in the future.

If it were possible to say as much in admiration of the performers as I do of their very admirable program, I gladly would, but I cannot. The Ensemble Leonarda was formed (according to their own description) to perform Baroque music with “vim, vigor, and enthusiasm.” Their enthusiasm is undoubted, but the vim and vigor were distinctly lacking, and their performance on the whole gave the impression of being careful and constrained. It was also plagued by balance issues, with the harpsichord verging on inaudibility throughout. Alison Davy, the soprano who sang the two Courbois cantatas, has a pleasant if not very colorful voice; David Bell, the tenor who joined her for the Bernier, has a voice that is both rough and wobbly, as well as being far too loud to balance well with Davy.

All the same, I am extremely grateful to the ensemble for introducing me to the exquisite charms of Philippe Courbois.

Tamar Hestrin Grader, a harpsichordist, received her A.B. in Music from Harvard in May.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. A small correction: Francois Couperin died in 1733, not 1730.

    Comment by Nickolai Sheikov — June 15, 2011 at 3:38 pm

  2. I attended the same concert, although I had to check on the details, since it appears that you and I attended two different events. I found not only the programming, but also the playing to be thoroughly engaging and enjoyable, and they most certainly had the vim and vigor that you think was lacking. The occasional balance problems were minimal, probably due to the fact that this ensemble (like so many of the Fringe Concert artists) is from out of town, and therefore new to the acoustics of the space. As far as the opinion of Mr. Bell’s voice, I do not share your opinion, and felt that the balance was fine between the two singers, and their rapport was delightful. Do you thrive so much on being negative in your reviews that you could find nothing complimentary to say about the performance? If so, you have my pity, for you will never enjoy anything, since there is no such thing as a flawless performance. The good far outweighed the bad in the performance by Ensemble Leonarda on June 13, and I for one am very happy to have heard this ensemble.

    I also agree with Nickolai Sheikov about Couperin’s dates, perhaps Couperin DOES need an introduction.

    Comment by Brian A. — June 22, 2011 at 5:39 pm

  3. I am grateful to Nickolai Sheikov for the correction – it was most lax of me to allow a typo like that to go through.

    Comment by Tamar Hestrin Grader — June 23, 2011 at 8:51 pm

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