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.