Gathering in Jordan Hall Friday at 5pm, we found ourselves soon transported with Ricercar Consort and soprano Céline Scheen, to a Berlin where Rameau reigned supreme in a viol-centric universe allied to the Prussian Hohenzollerns Friedrich the Great and his nephew, Friedrich Wilhelm. This was a fun foray into a lesser-known story of music history, and the type of event where BEMF excels.
Jean-Philippe Rameau of course is a French composer who never traveled to Berlin. For a cursory overview of his life, Ivan Hewett writing in the Guardian last summer [here] gives a nice synopsis as well as calling out a fabulous Debussy quote. So this concert was about musical travels. The viol virtuoso Ludwig Christian Hesse arranged Rameau’s music, especially from the operas and ballets, for small chamber ensembles; many of these versions call for two viols, so the presumption is that Hesse performed them with his pupil, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm (Duke of Prussia and Elector of Brandenburg). Evidence of how interconnected these spheres are historically and politically, this history provides a nice background to the musical cross-pollination of Hesse’s arrangements of French music, and a salient reminder that at a time when Berlin opera houses performed Italian works, French compositions were not unknown.
This concert also raises interesting questions about authenticity and arrangement. Historical musicology works to track down original scores and establish an Urtext. What we forget now is the way music travelled in keyboard reductions, different orchestrations, and modified transcriptions even into the twentieth century. The rise of recordings sounded the death knell for so many of these altered states. Hesse, who seems not to have been a composer in his own right, might otherwise be forgotten except as a footnote in the history of viol performance were it not for concerts such as these.
More than simply a public service, however, this was a fun concert of great music in viol-rich arrangements performed at a very high level. Philippe Pierlot was joined by Rainer Zipperling on bass viol for some works, along with François Fernandez, violin, and François Guerrier, harpsichord; Céline Scheen rounded out the ensemble.
The program opened with La Lyre enchantée, a suite drawn from Rameau’s opéra-ballet, Les surprises de l’Amour (1748, revised 1757 and here probably based on the 1758 publication) for soprano, two viols, and continuo. From the opening Prélude gracieux (with sung text, not provided in yearbook), we find ourselves in the rarefied world of French Baroque music; in Hesse’s re-imagining the viol takes a greater role, and the interplay between instrument and voice is lovely. The suite consists of instrumental and sung movements in rough alternation; the Andante, like the later Loure and Contredanse, are lively dances with a rhythmic propulsion maintaining momentum. The remaining airs, Air d’Uranie and Air de Parthénope, hint at a narrative framework (the siren Parthénope falling for Apollo’s son Linus); really they are an occasion for vocal styling, and Scheen rose to the music’s challenges.
Switching to an instrumental work, Pierlot, Fernandez, and Guerrier performed the IIIe Concert by Rameau. In four movements (La Lapoplinière, La Timide: Rondeau gracieux, Premier Tambourin, Deuxième Tambourin en rondeau) this trio sonata is a prefiguration of later piano trio music in its tightly organized interplay between instruments. The harpsichord remains important but at times that line is filigree to the strings. The last movement opened with the rusticity of a country dance, again calling to mind later works that borrow heavily from folk music genres.
Scheen then joined the three instrumentalists for de Montéclair’s La Mort de Didon, an operatic cantata on the subject of the Carthaginian queen’s demise with the singer voicing her laments in alternation with voicing comments on the action (heroine plus chorus combined). Inspired by earlier operas on this theme, Montéclair penned a veritable swan song for a soprano. The text owes much to Virgil, of course, but is especially fascinating for the way it grants Dido agency in her own death (the epic waffles on this point). Following the pause we returned for Jean-Marie Leclair’s Sonate VIII à trois (1728). There is virtuosic writing across all instruments, making this truly ensemble music. The musicians performed with an enviable degree of cohesion—here and throughout the concert.
The program concluded with Rameau’s seven-movement Castor et Pollux Suite (arranged by Hesse and Pierlot). Based on his tragédie en musique of the same name, it dates to 1737 in its original version, and 1754 for a chamber version; the plot concerns the famous brothers, one immortal and one mortal (siblings to Helen and Clytemnestra, sons of Leda). The suite centers on the katasterization, as the brothers are translated into constellations. Here, as previously, Scheen sang with a beautifully clear voice, although her diction and enunciation were not always so focused.
In foregrounding Hesse’s Prussian Rameau, this concert is a start in bringing attention to this famous gambist and arranger. While Hesse’s strength may not have lay in original compositions, his skills as an adaptor provide plenty of food for thought in light of later orchestrations and developments in chamber music. Besides that, this concert was quite simply fun!