in: Reviews

July 31, 2011

IBIL’s Joyful Jumble of French Baroque

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One of the best things about early music performance, when done with style, is its ability to tap into the spirit of a time when classical music was a little wilder and more freewheeling, when competing families of instruments and their bastard offspring jostled for space on the stage and soloists tossed off ornaments at whim. The cheerfully untidy mix of both familiar and obscure French Baroque compositions on the July 29 program of the faculty and guest concert at the International Baroque Institute at Longy proved that enthusiasm and a sense of adventure, along with artistry and skill, can transplant the guts of such music easily from the court of King Louis XIV to Pickman Hall.

Examining the oversize program brought a number of interesting tidbits to light before the performance even started. The concert’s title, Les Goûts-réünis (reunited tastes, as far as I can tell), presaged both the speed with which the program veered from one mood to another and the many Gallic accents peppering the titles, sources and instruments listed. Luckily I had a flutist sitting near me to explain flûte à bec, flûte de voix, flûte de quatre, and flûte doûce (in reality, fancy names for the recorder family), though I was left to draw my own conclusion to the identity of the keyboard instrument with vertically projecting strings — identified as the lovely sounding clavicytherium. I was also able to view imaginative illustrations of Cupid enjoying his conquest over mortals, a sweet nightingale, and a slightly less sweet portrait of M. Couperin.

The first selection on the program was also eye-catching for an early music concert: the announcement of the US premier of the Concerto in e minor [Sonata] by Charles Dieupart (1667-1740) for two recorders, a small assortment of strings and continuo. True to its title, the piece seemed, through somewhat awkward orchestration, to be unable to make up its mind regarding genre. Paul Leenhouts (co-director of IBIL) and Jon Daniels gave the first of several very fine performances on two members of the aforementioned recorder family; during the opening slow movements, however, the two recorders struggled in timbre as soloists against a bright ripieno often oddly limited to two violins and viola. All members of the ensemble sparkled through the cleverly interwoven texture of the fast movements, though, which were satisfyingly driven from the bass section.

Following the somewhat clunky but feisty Dieupart was a model of melancholy elegance, Tombeau pour Monsieur de Lully by Marin Marais. Sarah Cunningham and Beiliang Zhu made me exceptionally glad for the non-extinction of the viola da gamba with their exquisitely communicated recitative-style dialogue. The two gambists took on unique but complementary identities, Zhu’s butter-smooth sound perfectly suited to her long chromatic lines, Cunningham’s impassioned tone conveyed in a reedier register augmented by vibrato and florid cascades.

For something completely different, countertenor Ricard Bordas took the stage to tell all the details of Cupid conquering mortals (and Bacchus) in a droll sort of mini-cantata by Michel Pignolet de Montéclair, Le Triomphe de l’amour (the final aria being an unabashed drinking song). Bordas was pitch-perfect in tone and timing, but my attention was drawn most often to Cunningham on gamba and Arthur Haas on harpsichord, who practically performed a drama unto themselves with their nimble leaps of rhythm and humor. Cunningham was wonderfully agile in her use of the inégale bowstroke alone, demonstrating the meticulousness of Baroque instrumental technique at its most expressive.

Haas, claiming his place as tireless continuo player in nearly every piece on the program, subsequently got his chance to solo, doing an exceptional job maintaining a continuous sense of rhythm throughout acrobatic intricacies of ornamentation in a sarabande and passacaglia by Jean-Henry d’Anglebert. The first half closed with a sweet goofy suite involving dance by a fully costumed Ken Pierce and dramatic reading in lusciously pronounced archaic French by Matthew Hall. Graceful dancer though he was, I could not quite reconcile myself to Pierce’s regalia, wig, and makeup; having immersed myself in the evening’s music as something fully alive and rather timeless, his appearance seemed, ironically, to be something of an anachronism. His costume change to harlequin attire for the last number meshed nicely with the gentle carnival-esque atmosphere, though, and his impish wiggles drew chuckles from the audience.

The second half of the program presented three concert pieces in a more traditional vein. Phoebe Carrai, co-director of the Institute, and Zhu, celli, displayed an amazing amount of synchrony in Couperin’s Treizième Concert à 2 Instruments à l’unisson. The relationship of the two parts proved to be not exact unisson but the alternation of extremely close imitation and melodic lines rendered in parallel intervals. Zhu, a former student of both Carrai and Cunningham at Julliard, stated in her bio that she could “not be happier to be performing with both of her teachers,” and one can easily see why; both duos were highlights of the evening.

Manfedo Kraemer was again joined by the inexhaustible Carrai and Haas for a Francœur violin sonata. Shunning the delicate, gossamer sound often achieved by Baroque violinists, Kraemer’s tone was rich, hearty, and assertive throughout. Though first struck by a certain harshness and stridency, I found myself appreciating his sound more and more as the piece ran its course, reaching an exhilarating peak in the growling barriolage and rollicking theme of the closing rondeau.

The final listed piece again brought a full chamber ensemble onstage in a multi-part suite by Couperin. The first half focused on the luxuriously blended sonorities of Carrai, Kraemer, and oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz. Recorders, violins, and oboes paired off to equally pleasing effect for the final set of dances, then joined for the last gigue, which tumbled to a close in a cascade of trills that somehow managed to be both raucous and perfectly coordinated. All was not yet over though: the entire evening’s cast returned to the stage for a boisterous mystery encore, later determined to be a Poulenc arrangement done by Leenhouts and handed to the performers at the stage door as they entered — a fittingly cheeky end to a very entertaining evening.

Zoe Kemmerling is a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory and a freelance violist, Baroque violinist, writer, and string instructor.

 

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