Celebrating the upcoming release of Amours Contrariées, its recording of late French Baroque chamber music, Les Bostonades, here composed of harpsichordist Akiko Sato, violinist Sarah Darling, flutist Teddie Hwang, and gambist Emily Walhout, with the Paris-dwelling tenor Zachary Wilder, appeared on the Cambridge Society for Early Music series at Christ Church in Harvard Square Monday with chamber music from the first half of the 18th century, including two cantates françoises by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault and one by Jean-Philippe Rameau.
In Louis XIV’s reign and during the early years of Louis XV, musical tastes in the latter part of the French baroque underwent a seismic shift that culminated in the Galant, or Rococo, style. Music of the monumental Baroque —the term we use to describe the musical aesthetic that came of age in the last quarter of the 17th century under the auspices of Lully and the authoritarian influence of Louis XIV’s Versailles—valued symmetry and order. By contrast, music in the Galant Style valued asymmetry and elegant disorder. Where monumental baroque emphasized grandeur, the galant emphasized intimacy. Where monumental baroque showcased public life and public proclamation, the galant highlighted privacy and the personal expression of emotion. Where the monumental baroque celebrated royal centrality and the aristocracy, the galant engaged the bourgeoisie.
It was in this environment that an Italian import, the cantata, quickly nativized into a French form, the cantate françoise. Usually comprising three recitatives and three airs for voice, continuo, and one or two obbligato instruments, they became a primary mode of entertainment in the French Rococo salon. Cantatas also provided a moral lesson on sundry topics such as love and jealousy. Les Bostonades performed two examples of these by Clérambault on mythological subjects that deviated from the standard form: Pirame et Tisbé (Pyramus and Thisbe), and Orphée (Orpheus).
Wilder’s flexible and vibrant voice is well-suited to these tenor cantatas. In the period, the tenor voice was described by as heroic, tender, and piercing when needed, and Wilder easily portrayed these characteristics. He also used the prescribed ornaments as rhetorical devices instead of mere musical curiosities of the period. Darling’s obbligato was just as vocal and rhetorical, and she brought an elegance to the pieces through her round and supple tone. The ensemble played particularly touchingly in the Air fort lent et fort tendre in Clérambault’s Orphée, one of his finest cantatas, in which the protagonist addresses Hades and pleads for the return of his lover.
But it was in Rameau’s naturalistic Impatience where Wilder really shone. In what seems like sonic depiction of a Watteau painting, this delightful triptych of recitatives and arias centers not on a mythological subject, but rather an impatient lover waiting in a secluded grove for a tryst with his beloved. The most touching movement came again in the air tendre, where the lover reconciles himself with cupid; Wilder indeed sang tenderly and ornamented with grace and elegance. Emily Walhout’s virtuosic obbligato also stood out in the first and third airs, her fierce bowing illustrating the impatience of an anxious heart. Overall, the cantatas could have benefited from a starker depiction of internal contrasts and variations among sections of the music that represented opposing affects and passions, and overall, more variations of texture.
Instrumental pieces by Rameau paired with two of his cantatas. His unique Prelude in A Minor, a very late example of an unmeasured harpsichord prelude and the only addition to the form by Rameau received an eloquent and articulate performance by director and harpsichordist Akiko Sato. The Fifth Concerto from Pièces de Clavecin en Concert, Rameau’s only instrumental chamber output, proved equally charming. Each of the movements was dedicated to and at times portrayed different artists of the day named in their titles; La Forqueray, after the composer Antoine Forqueray featured more Italianate than French fugue-smithing by the composer, executed flexibly by the ensemble. La Cupis, after the great dancer Marie-Anne La Cupis de Camargo, featured long, lyrical, langoureux lines by the obliggati, and La Marais, after the viol player and composer Marin Marais, echoed his style of writing.
This concert provided a most welcome addition to the musical landscape of a town known for its love of Germanic repertoire, reminding us of the stylistic, aesthetic, and philosophical variety within the Baroque world. Let us hear more from the great treasury of French baroque music.
Singer and scholar Ian Pomerantz dedicates himself to the performance, preservation, and transmission of early music and Jewish music.