IN: Reviews

Salutary Selections from the French Baroque


The Cambridge Society for Early Music, whose president is harpsichordist James S. Nicholson, is beginning its season early this year, with its series of concerts in various venues beginning with the one I heard at the Carlisle Congregational Church on September 8. The last iteration of this particular concert in the CSEM’s season can be heard on Monday, September 12, at Christ Church, Cambridge and is not to be missed.

This concert of French Baroque Theater Music, Tailored for the Salon, was presented by the relatively new ensemble, Old City Music, comprising Geoffrey Burgess & Owen Watkins, Baroque oboes & recorders; Heidi Powell & Richard Hsu (who happen to be man and wife), violins; Leon Schelhase, harpsichord; and Laura Jeppesen, viola da gamba. Burgess and Shelhase founded the group in East Philadelphia (the “Old City”) in 2009.

Nicholson mentioned in his opening remarks that the ensemble had just spent almost three days of intense rehearsal of this difficult but rewarding music, and it paid off. The point was to present the artists’ idea of an intimate salon concert, “conducted in an overtly theatrical fashion,” often with music from the latest theatrical productions, but also comprising “music imitating theatrical gestures.” That is to say, there was a great deal of the performers’ ingenious selection and arrangement responsible for the presentation, and it was all salutary.

For example, François Couperin’s L’Espagnole, the Second ordre des nations (1726), comprising both a Sonate and a Suite, were placed at the beginning and the end, respectively, of the first half before intermission and were performed by the entire ensemble. The order of movements of the suite was altered, resulting in alternation of trio textures (violins viz. oboes plus continuo), beginning and ending with the whole group.

Sandwiched between was, first, Jean Henri d’Anglebert’s “Prélude & Allemande,” from his Pièces de clavecin (1689), stylishly performed by Schelhase on Nicholson’s harpsichord, built by William Dowd in 1978 after an early 17th-century instrument from the Ruckers’ shop and tuned to a mellow A=392. Schelhase’s ornaments were amazingly rich and smooth; nevertheless the Allemande almost lost its sense of the dance. Next came selections from Livres III-V (1701-25) of Marin Marais’ Pièces de violes, performed with grace and ensemble intimacy by Jeppesen and Schelhase. This was a suite completely made up by the performers to provide “thematic continuity” for the last movement, “L’operation de la taille.” Marais wrote this as an almost literal description of a lithotomy (cutting of a stone from the urinary tract), which he himself underwent.

The program notes included a facsimile of the original engraved score (1725), with inscribed comments about the operation along the way, duly translated into English and read by Jeppesen as she played. She also preceded the performance by reading descriptions of two similar contemporaneous operations — lots of blood and gore. Jeppesen has a very special way of connecting musical phrases that has you sitting on the edge of your seat, waiting for more. Schelhase was an excellent partner, responding in kind to Jeppesen’s playfulness in the imitative sections. The intention behind the performance was, however, quite serious — an informative lesson in both musical and medical history.

The second half also presented fascinating anomalies. It began with the juiciest selections from the eighth of Couperin’s Les Goûts-réunis ou Nouveaux concerts (1724), specified as “dans le goût théâtrale” (in theatrical style). Although instruments are not specified, there are lines for only one or two voices and continuo. Old City performed these movements as an ensemble but featured some sections with the original slimmer instrumentation, finally giving the violinists a chance to shine without the winds. Although, according to a prefatory page to the first edition, Couperin intended the entire Goûts-réunis to be a mixture of the French and Italian styles (as implied in the title), this particular Concert was specifically in the French style, as a tribute to Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687).

For sonic contrast, this was followed by Jacques-Martin Hotteterre’s Première suite de pièces à deux dessus (1712), performed with jocularity on alto recorders by Burgess and Watkins, two men who grew up in Sydney, Australia, and have been playing together since their youth. Rarely have I heard such joyful intimacy and tunefulness in ensemble playing, especially of two completely exposed instruments. The two players, by the way, have very different embouchures.

Les caractères de la danse (1715), by Lully’s student, Jean-Féry Rebel, was one of the composer’s most successful suites of dance music, performed by the most famous women dancers of the time. From a later parody, Old City concluded that each of its fourteen movements, except the two sonatas, was personified in amorous escapades. The work was performed without pause, requiring the performers to fall into each character instantly and then move on. This they did with great energy and glee.

The concert’s lovely dénouement arrived in the form of the Passacaille d’Armide (1686), a slow, stately dance-lament originally written by Lully for the orchestra of the Paris Opera, but also extant in an arrangement for harpsichord by d’Anglebert published in his Pièces de clavecin (1689). The latter was here performed first with appropriate stylish feeling and ornamentation by Schelhase, immediately followed by Old City’s version of the original, in a careful attempt at least to provide context for the d’Anglebert, and “to demonstrate the richness of Lully’s scoring.” This they did, with great aplomb, sending the smallish audience of old-faithfuls home with smiles of satisfaction.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.


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

  1. What a pleasure it always is to encounter a review able to bear witness to the writer’s positivism and unvarnished approval of performers’ intent through every sentence. Reading each of Mary Wallace Davidson’s fine postings reminds me, in no uncertain way, to reach for an encouraging tone and to offer constructive commentary in what I myself send in.

    Speaking purely from my own perspective, it is sad and rarely satisfying to scan a write-up whose affect is darkly disapproving, or whose underlying critical tone does not express understanding of the performer’s presumed aims, let alone sympathy for them. I’ve long heeded my eye balls’ tendency to ratchet speedily through an otherwise carefully done review that doesn’t make me wish I’d experienced the concert myself, however manqué aspects of it may have been. My fast-as-possible skittering through a wantonly judgemental piece is not “reading”. I simply want to get shot of the thing and whiz off to sunnier verbal climes.

    Coming across others’ personally engaged, positive coverage is such an incomparable joy that I do today’s cybernetic equivalent of hurling a ball of typescript into the corner if there’s no glow in what I’m writing.

    Thanks for reminding us to do exactly that, yet again, Mary.

    Christopher Greenleaf
    Avondale, RI

    Comment by Christopher Greenleaf — September 13, 2011 at 10:37 am

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