in: Reviews

February 18, 2013

French Baroque Comes to Brookline

by

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“The whole gang” (file photo)

Boston is an early music town, yet offers us far too little chance to savor the rich repertory of 18th-century French chamber music. Those brave enough to venture out in defiance of the dire storm warnings posted last night were rewarded with a fine program of “Musique pour la chambre du Roi” (Music for the royal privy chamber of Louis XV) presented in the parish hall of the Church of Our Saviour, Brookline, and repeated on Sunday at the Jewish Community Center in Springfield. Formed only a couple of years ago, Musical Offering is a group of well-seasoned soloists, several of whom first met in the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra. All of them are specialists in historical performance styles; their 2012-2013 season has been entirely devoted to music of the French baroque.

Opening the program was Louis-Nicolas Clérambault’s cantata for solo voice and ensemble L’Île de Delos, published in 1716. Mezzo-soprano Julia Cavallaro was assisted by an ensemble of flute (Sarah Paysnick), two violins (Emily Dahl and Sarah Darling), viola da gamba (David Miller), and harpsichord (Matthew Hall), the first violin and flute performing as concertino soloists in the concerto-like Prelude. The text pictures the island of Delos as the ideal resort of Apollo and the muses. Cavallaro has a big, resonant voice that occasionally overpowered the instruments, and sometimes got in the way of incisive French diction. Singing throughout her range with a pure and lovely tone, she knows how to shape and ornament a vocal line with just the right amount of freedom, an important skill in interpreting expressive arioso-like French melody. Paysnick played her beautiful wooden flute with pleasingly focussed tone and agile ornamentation, a proper foil to Cavallaro’s “Air on the muses.” The “Air de Musette” that followed introduced an amusingly rustic background as viola da gamba and harpsichord droned away, bagpipe-like, and the violins fiddled hurdy-gurdy tunes above them. The final Air was a lively tribute to Flora, goddess of spring.

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689-1755) was a prolific composer who wrote for all sorts of instrumental combinations. His Sonata Quinta from Op. 26 (listed on the program as a sonata for two basses) seems to have been intended for cello, bass viol, or bassoon and basso continuo. Soloist last night was baroque cellist Rebecca Shaw, her forthright tone and elaborate ornamentation dominating David Miller’s more restrained yet agile bass gamba, with Matthew Hall providing a skillfully realized continuo. After a somewhat tentative opening Allemanda, the centerpiece of this work was the second movement, an highly expressive Aria in Italian style. The concluding Giga was a staccato tour de force pitting cello and gamba against one another. Georg Philipp Telemann was no stranger to the French style, exemplified in his Quatuor “Parisien” en suite in E minor for violin (Sarah Darling), cello, flute, and continuo (gamba and harpsichord), published in Paris in 1738. The movements follow the sequence of a French suite, but carry “characteristic” titles typical of French keyboard works of the period. The Prelude was a stately French overture, followed by a rapid fugal movement. “Gay” was a gavotte, “Vite” a gigue, “Gracieusement” a minuet, and “Distrait” a whirlwind dance. The final “Modéré” was actually a Chaconne, a slow lament on a repeated bass pattern or ground in which the paired flute and gamba competed with cello and violin in a series of affecting variations.

After the intermission came Matthew Hall’s turn as soloist in the third of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin en concerts (1741), a suite of character pieces for harpsichord with “concerted” instrumental accompaniment. The opening movement, La La Poplinière (sic), honors the Parisian financier Le Riche de la Poplinière, who had his own orchestra and rented an apartment in his large house to Rameau and his wife. Its capricious arpeggios and rapid hand crossings were delivered with virtuosic panache by Hall, the violin (Emily Dahl) and gamba providing discreet punctuation. In La Timide, a pair of lovely rondeaux, Sarah Paysnick’s warbling flute tones matched the harpsichord’s tinkling in high (four-foot) register. Concluding the suite with a pair of frenetic dances, Tambourins featured the harpsichord and viola da gamba imitating drums with percussive attack, while the violin fiddled away in dancing master style.

In the final offering, Rameau’s cantata Orphée for voice and instrumental ensemble, soloist Julia Cavallaro had several roles to play: as narrator, weaving the tale of a descent to the underworld, as “a company of young lovers,” as Orpheus himself, and as bystander commenting on man’s helplessness in the face of  love’s power. Her ability to ring changes in vocal characterization from dramatic narration to hopeful expectation to passionate outcry to cheerful moralizing was astonishing. Concerto-like solos by the two violins, flute, and viola da gamba were elegantly played. Altogether a delightful evening worth a trudge through the snow.

Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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