Album Review | From Paris to Versailles
…this recording plays a crucial role in enriching the music industry … not only providing pure musical enjoyment but also serve as valuable resources for academic research, contributing to a deeper understanding and appreciation of this rich historical period in music.
In the Baroque music landscape, where Italian and French styles mingled, it’s interesting to see how French music consistently absorbed Italian flavours. This intrigue deepened when Jean Baptiste Lully, of Italian heritage, became part of Louis XIV’s extravagant Versailles court. Surprisingly, Lully, despite his Italian roots, consciously guided French music away from Italian influences. These cultural crossroads and musical entanglements gave birth to a French Baroque style that was both distinct and comfortably familiar.
Sydney/Canberra-based early music ensemble Salut! Baroque’s new album, From Paris to Versailles, delves into the enchanting world of French Baroque during its illustrious ‘golden era.’ The transition from the Louvre Palace to the opulent Versailles Palace marked a pivotal moment in French music history. It was during Louis XIV’s reign that he established the Académie Royale de Musique (Paris Opera) and Chapelle Royale (Royal Chapel) in Versailles, with the intention of promoting the refinement and artistic expression in both secular and sacred French music. Notably absent from Salut! Baroque’s album is the music of Jean Baptiste Lully, despite his substantial contributions to these renowned musical institutions. Instead, the album presents a captivating collection of compositions by artists who either orbited in Lully’s sphere or were deeply influenced by his genius. This unique selection sheds new light on often-overlooked French musical gems and offers a compelling addition to contemporary interpretations of this rich and neglected repertoire.
In this album, a talented ensemble of eleven historically informed instrumentalists and vocalists graces us with their artistry. What sets this album apart is the way it presents a delightful musical assortment, akin to stepping into a French Patisserie teeming with an array of pastries, each bursting with distinct flavours. The album offers a medley of genres, showcasing short yet enchanting works. It skilfully juxtaposes extremes that were intricately intertwined during that era—secular and sacred, vocal and instrumental, nobility and commonality. It offers a vivid portrayal of the diverse and interconnected facets of the period.
The album commences with a captivating piece by Marin Marais, a composer who studied composition under the tutelage of Lully and later assumed conducting responsibilities in the grandeur of Versailles. Titled Sonnerie de Sainte-Geneviève du Mont de Paris, this nine-minute masterpiece revolves around a recurring three-note ground bass, reminiscent of the resounding bells atop Clovis tower. Harpsichord player Monika Kornel skilfully provides modest yet glorious realisations of the repeating bass line, acting as the unwavering anchor for Matthew Greco’s flourishing melodies on the baroque violin. Amidst his sparkling ornamentations, Greco’s nimble and precisely articulated scalic runs inject the composition with a refreshing sense of virtuosity. The viola de gamba, extraordinarily handled by Laura Moore, occasionally assumes the role of supporting the bass line, while at other moments, it emerges as an equal partner to the violin, engaging in rocket-like semiquaver dialogues.
The intriguing juxtapositions continue to play a significant role in the second piece of the album: François Couperin’s Troisième Leçon de Ténèbres (Office of Saint Wednesday). This sacred composition, likely performed in Louis XIV’s chapel during the Tenebrae service, possesses a unique historical context. Originally conducted during Holy Week from midnight to 4 am in complete darkness, Louis XIV later moved it back to 6 pm to accommodate court members. Couperin’s work, firmly rooted in sacred tradition, exhibits noticeable influences from Italian opera, especially in its expressive and ornamented vocal lines (These were attractions of the sacred service). Moreover, it is a rarely performed vocal composition by Couperin, who has been more renowned for his keyboard works. Soprani Jane Sheldon and Anna Fraser excel as they navigate the melismatic intricacies of the Hebrew Aleph-Bets. Their duets are a breathtaking showcase of vocal artistry, alternating between verses with crystal-clear diction and elegant lyricism. Tim Blomfield on bass violin and Monika Kornel on chamber organ provide warm support to the vocalists.
The transition from vocal to instrumental music leads us to the next piece, Jacques-Christophe Naudot’s Concerto in G major, Op.17 No.5 for the transverse flute. This composition bears the unmistakable influence of Vivaldi and stands as an early example of a transverse flute concerto in France. Comprising three movements, this concerto places an emphasis on the lyrical and light-hearted qualities of the solo instrument, eschewing dazzling virtuosity. In this recording, however, the transverse flute’s role is ingeniously assumed by Sally Melhuish, who opts for the recorder. It is indeed an interesting decision as the transverse flute was introduced in that period as a replacement to recorders. Melhuish’s rendition is characterized by its delicacy and transparency, effectively highlighting the recorder’s ethereal tonal qualities. The ensemble offers unwavering and precisely articulated support throughout all movements, occasionally surprising the listener with terraced dynamic shifts. It is worth noting that, at times, the ensemble’s volume surpasses that of the solo recorder, a minor concern that could be mitigated through careful mixing in future recordings.
Another concerto showcased in this album, Michel Corrette’s Concerto Comique No. 18 in A minor, La Tourière, also highlights a recorder soloist. Notably, the issue of balancing that surfaced in previous pieces is not present here. Hans-Dieter Michatz, the soloist in this performance, employs a recorder with a sharper and more robust sonority. The comic elements of the work were realised effectively by the ensemble players with spiky staccatos on repeated notes, as well as articulated unison phrases which were probably inspired by popular secular tunes at that period.
In between the two concerti, we encounter a short ‘cantata’, Air Arbres épais, sombre feuillage, composed by Michel Pignolet de Montéclair. Once more, this composition exhibits striking influences from the Italian style, particularly the Italian secular cantata. This genre of music does not solely rely on a solo vocal line but also incorporates an obbligato instrument, alongside the continuo line. Soprano Jane Sheldon’s ethereal voice soared gracefully though the music, infusing every lyrical line with a profound sense of melancholy and longing, not to mention the counter melody performed with a purity of tone by Megan Lang on the baroque flute and as well, the flowing basso continuo played by Anthea Cottee on viola de gamba, and Monika Kornel, again, on the harpsichord.
One standout track in the album, for me, is Monika Kornel’s solo harpsichord performance of Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer’s rhapsodic masterpiece, Le Vertigo. This composition brilliantly encapsulates the influence of Couperin, marked by its dance-like elements and inherent elegance. Simultaneously, it pushes the boundaries of keyboard virtuosity, delving into harmonic and tonal explorations akin to Jean-Philippe Rameau’s innovative style. Kornel’s performance is nothing short of remarkable, displaying technical brilliance, a captivating spirit, and a nuanced command of tonal contrasts. Kornel’s execution of the piece, characterized by heavy and punchy chords, takes the audience on a breathtaking rollercoaster journey, leaving a lasting impression.
Next, another setting for the Jeremiah Lamentation follows. This time, Marc Antoine Charpentier’s composition takes centre stage, featuring three lessons sung on Good Friday. Charpentier, a figure often compared in talent to Lully, unfortunately faced challenges securing a court position due to Lully’s dominance. Nevertheless, his work shines as an example of a confident fusion of Italian chromaticism and the French blend of aria and recitative styles. Performed with a comparable ensemble as in the previous Couperin Lessons, with the addition of a flute, soprani Sheldon and Fraser steer the composition towards a more introspective and contemplative tone. Their well-phrased vocal delivery transports the audience to a realm of spiritual reflection. The thoughtfully performed instrumental interludes further enhance this intimate and meditative journey, creating a truly immersive experience for the listeners.
The album concludes on a delightful note with the Premier Concert from Rameau’s Pièces de Clavecin en Concert. Though often categorized as chamber music, these three pieces lean more towards compositions centred around a foundational keyboard part with two obbligato string instruments. Once again, Monika Kornel’s harpsichord prowess shines, particularly in the opening number, ‘La Coulicam’. Here, Kornel delivers continuously dazzling runs and arpeggios on the keyboard, complemented by the exciting counterpoint responses from the strings. The second piece, ‘La Livri’, serves as a tombeau for a notable patron of the time. It showcases lyrical and expressive performances by Greco and Moore on baroque violin and viola da gamba, respectively, layered atop the harpsichord’s line. The work culminates with ‘Le Vèzinet’, characterized by the graceful execution of typical French dotted rhythms by the ensemble, providing a fitting conclusion to the album.
All in all, Salut! Baroque’s latest album offers a revitalizing perspective on lesser-known French compositions from the early Versailles era. This musical exploration is a source of delight and gratitude for the community of music enthusiasts in Sydney, especially considering the flourishing early music performance scene in recent times. Such recordings, like the one presented here, play a crucial role in enriching the music industry. They not only provide pure musical enjoyment but also serve as valuable resources for academic research, contributing to a deeper understanding and appreciation of this rich historical period in music.