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Gems From the French Baroque


Violinist Lisa Brooke joined Duo Maresienne on Sunday afternoon to play a program of early 18th-century works by French composers. The concert, which took place at the Somerville Museum, was a repeat of one given the previous evening at Lindsay Chapel of First Church, Cambridge.

The well-thought out program opened and closed with works by two of the greatest instrumental composers of the late Baroque in France: the harpsichordist François Couperin (“le Grand”) and Marin Marais, the virtuoso player and composer of music for the viola da gamba. In between came less well known works, among them three sonatas that leaned heavily toward the more Italianate side of late-Baroque music-making, in which French and Italian styles were sharply differentiated.

For this reason the concert’s title, “Instrumental Gems From the French Baroque,” was not quite right. But it was nevertheless a most satisfying concert, not least for the spirited performances of several less familiar works. Only the opening selection, the first of Couperin’s Concerts royaux (Royal Concerts), is widely known, today more familiar in performances with flute rather than violin on the leading part. (Couperin specified no instrument and even allowed the work to be played on solo harpsichord.)

The hall at the Somerville Museum in which I heard this performance has, at least for the time being, the ambiance of a construction site, but it is not a bad venue for this music. Seating no more than about 50, on folding chairs, it nevertheless has a high ceiling and numerous windows on its bare walls. This makes for a lively acoustic perhaps comparable to that of the mirrored halls in which this music might originally have been heard. It is, however, an unforgiving space, and both the beauties and the inevitable flubs of the musicians are all perfectly audible to the audience, seated just a few feet away from the performers.

The Duo, comprising Carol Lewis on viola da gamba and Olav Chris Henriksen on theorbo and guitar, furnished a basso continuo accompaniment to the violin for much of the program. Listeners today are more accustomed to hearing this type of accompaniment supplied by cello and harpsichord. But the quieter gamba and the lute-like theorbo were favored for chamber music in Baroque France, and their subtlety is perfectly suited to this highly nuanced music.

The Baroque guitar, which Henricksen took up in several of the works, is quite a different instrument from its modern counterpart, with only five gut strings (or rather courses), tuned in a so-called re-entrant arrangement like that of a banjo. Although capable of percussive effects, it too is subtler than the modern instrument. In fact I found it occasionally too subtle, especially in the Lentement movement of Dornel’s sonata La Senaillé. Here some potentially expressive harmonic surprises (very characteristic of French Baroque style) went unmarked. But this was far preferable to the unrefined strumming that passes for continuo playing with some modern players. Baroque guitarists did use strumming as well as finger technique, but the music on this program calls chiefly for the latter. I was glad to hear it, especially in slow movements, where every detail of the improvised accompaniment was audible (as it should be).

Musically the high point of the program may well have been two works by Marais for gamba and (in this performance) theorbo. Both the Cloches (Carillon) and the prelude that preceded it are tours de force for the soloist, full of frighteningly difficult passages. I’m not sure whether this performance pulled off the difficult task of making compelling musical unities out of these wildly diverse pieces. But they were played with confidence that surely projected Marais’s capriciously changing expressive and musical ideas.

Almost equally convincing was the performance of the final work, Marais’s eponymous Sonate à la Maresienne. Although the principal part here is that of the violin, Marais includes substantial passagework for his own instrument. The title must refer to the piece’s sometimes playful, sometimes dramatic juxtapositions of sharply contrasting matter; evidently these changes were the composer’s calling card. Particularly effective in this performance were some startling stylistic and harmonic contrasts in the slow second movement. Yet in quick passages the musicians sometimes seemed to be working very hard without quite projecting the good humor of the music.

Something of the same problem surfaced in the opening work by Couperin and in the Italianate sonatas by Louis-Antoine Dornel and Jean-Baptiste Senaillé that formed the core of the program. These lacked a certain sprezzatura, the virtuoso nonchalance that was admired in both Italian and French virtuosos of the period. Here, too, the violin was not aided by the close acoustic of the room, which seemed to magnify the inevitable small flaws in tone and intonation.

These were nevertheless engaging, energetic performances, although they did raise the question of why Dornel called one of the sonatas “La Couperin.” For this was an entirely Italianate work, stylistically akin to the sonatas of Corelli and not at all close to Couperin’s own style. Nor was Dornel’s La Senaillé notably similar to the sonata (op. 4, no. 4) by the actual Senaillé, although in this case both works share a predominantly Italian style. In this, incidentally, I must differ with the view that Henricksen offered in spoken remarks about the piece. Could the title of the first work mean that it was actually a dedication to Couperin rather than a musical depiction of him? Or was Couperin, today seen as the epitome of French Baroque style, viewed by his contemporaries as an Italophile?

Be that as it may, the performances of the quick movements in these pieces generated considerable excitement, and I was glad to hear some apparently improvised embellishments in the repeated sections of the slow second movement of La Senaillé. There might have been even more of these, however, and perhaps the movement’s unusual tempo mark—très grave (very slow)—could have been taken more to heart to make an even deeper impression.

Of special interest to this writer were two rare transcriptions: Robert de Visée’s theorbo arrangement of Couperin’s harpsichord piece Les silvains, and a version for solo guitar of the sarabande from the sonata by Senaillé. Henricksen played both elegantly, with just the right sort of subtle pauses at the ends of phrases in the sarabande that make French Baroque music expressive without being histrionic.

David Schulenberg is a harpsichordist and author of Music of the Baroque and The Keyboard Music of J. S. Bach. He teaches at Wagner College in New York City. His website is here.


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