The 14-strong band of strings, winds, and harpsichord L’Académie brought “Musique pour le chambre du roi” to Christ Church Cambridge Saturday night, presenting works of three superb French composers from just before 1700: Marin Marais, Michel-Richard de Lalande, and François Couperin.
The meagerness of the crowd, although unfortunate, was not entirely inappropriate. “Music for the chamber of King Louis XIV” was a relatively intimate affair, performed privately by a small subset of the king’s vast musical establishment. French kings were never alone, however, always attended by a host of servants and favored nobles. Nor was all the music on the program originally composed for the king’s private concerts, for it also included ballet music for the theater.
L’ Académie, whose name refers to the semi-public concerts given during the 17th and 18th centuries, was written up in the Improper Bostonian earlier this year for its performances in area hospitals. The organization has been presenting in various guises and venues since 2009. Six of the original members of the ensemble participated in last night’s concert: Joan Plana, Colleen McGary-Smith, Laura Jeppesen, Daniel Golleher, Emily Rideout, Andrew Arceci, Andrea LeBlanc.
I had hoped to hear some solo playing by the group’s new director, the Catalonian violinst Joan Plana, but had to settle for watching him lead the ensemble, for the only substantial solos were given to the two flutes, doubling on recorders. Not that this music called for the outright virtuosity demanded by the more familiar Italian music of the period. Avoiding the fireworks of Vivaldi and other Italians, French Baroque musicians followed the king in preferring an elegant “speaking” style graced by expressive ornaments and a distinctive approach to rhythm. Chamber music was expected to mirror the polite, sophisticated conversation of French literary salons. The royal orchestra (the famous “Twenty-Four Violins of the King”) was admired throughout Europe for its unanimity in matters of ornamentation, rhythm, and, one presumes, intonation.
It was odd that the photocopied program, while providing extensive biographies of all the players, contained no notes on the music, nor was any verbal commentary offered. The website advertised this as “a sumptuous program of orchestral music and re-imagined chamber works,” but audience members could hardly have known which pieces were presented in expanded versions of their original instrumentation. In fact all the music was arranged to some degree, but above all the works by Marais and Couperin, which were originally published as compositions for two melodic parts and basso continuo (harpsichord and bass instrument). Such pieces surely were heard in their day in varied scorings, especially when played for wealthy patrons. But whether they were orchestrated in the manner heard Saturday night, or whether doing so is to the benefit of the music, is less certain.
We know all three composers mostly for other types of music: Lalande for his sacred vocal works, Couperin for his solo harpsichord pieces, and Marais for his compositions for viola da gamba. Lalande’s Ballet de la jeunesse and the Chaconne from Les fontaines de Versailles were early works, given at the famous royal palace complex in 1686 and 1683, respectively. A suite in G minor by Marais was from a set of Pièces en trio published in 1692, and Couperin’s La françoise appeared in 1726 as the opening composition in Les nations. Comprising a “sonade” followed by a suite of dances, La françoise was originally titled La pucelle (The maiden) and in that guise probably dates from around 1692. Hence everything we heard dates from shortly before or after the death of Lully, the royal musician whose operas and ballets defined the French Baroque style. Indeed, Lalande’s Ballet de la jeunesse had substituted for Lully’s opera Armide, not yet complete at the time (it would be his last).
Not surprisingly, Lalande’s ballet music sounds close in style close to Lully’s, and only the Lalande works were written for the distinctive five-part French orchestral ensemble of the time. This may explain why these compositions were, to these ears, more successful than the “re-imagined” chamber works. Even Lalande’s pieces, however, were rescored, as in the substitution of violins for violas on some inner parts, or of viola da gambas for the original bass violins, and the addition of double bass and harpsichord. These alterations merely updated the sonority from how we usually hear this music (for better or worse). But I did not understand the decision to have the violins play sul ponticello (near the bridge), creating a weirdly nasal or metallic sound, in the “Marche des candiots”: that is, the March of the Cretans, who in the original ballet enter at this point to honor Jupiter, king of the gods. According to myth, the latter was born on the isle of Crete; here he is a stand-in for Louis XIV, who was meant to be honored, not mocked (as it seemed), in this section of the original ballet.
Expanding Marais and Couperin scores to orchestral dimensions served them badly. Recurring problems of intonation might have been exacerbated by the absence of viola parts to fill in the harmony, or by the combination of violins, viols, and flutes, with their various tuning systems. But these subtle pieces also suffered from the stiffness and small imprecisions of rhythm that are inevitable when as many as four or five players try to execute what were meant to be solo lines. I felt this especially in the Plainte (Lament) from the Marais suite, which for some reason was played without harpsichordist Michael Beattie, who elsewhere added an imaginative accompaniment, essential in these pieces. Other bright moments were added by flautist and recorder player Heloise Degrugillier, although I would have preferred her graceful solo in Marais’s passacaille to have been echoed by a solo gambist, not by a whole rumbling bass section. Their ensemble here was impressive, but not in a way that Marais could have intended or, more important, admired.
La françoise stood as the great work on the program. But the expressive character implicit in its original title was not taken up, and the best moments occurred when the fewest musicians were playing. Though the experiment in orchestration satisfied somewhat, making something of this repertoire with just three or four soloists who listened to one another, rather than fiddling with the score and trying to follow one leader, might have rewarded us more.