A-Mused – Part Two

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on December 23, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Review – A French Baroque Diva

Carolyn Sampson (Soprano)
Ex Cathedra
Jeffrey Skidmore (Conductor)

As with my previous blog, this recital dispels an often commonly-held belief. In this case, that French baroque and early Classical music is simply a catalogue of stifling, formulaic compositions that never escaped the shadow of Lully.

And furthermore, if you are searching for that gift for the classical enthusiast that ‘has everything’, then look no further.

Carolyn Sampson and Ex Cathedra under the skillful baton of Jeffrey Skidmore have created a beautifully crafted recital disc that shows that musical life in France from the 1730s until the eve of the Revolution was incredibly rich and varied.

They take as their starting point soprano Marie Fel. She was at the very epicentre of musical life in the capital, performing in all of Rameau’s operas as well as at the Concert Spirituel and the court at Versailles and Fontainebleau. And she clearly inspired some of the most beautiful music. From the exquisitely affected style of the period to music of impressive virtuosity, Madame Fel was in demand not only on stage, but also before throne and pulpit.

This generous recital features music from six composers – Rameau, Mondonville and Lalande as well as the lesser known, for his music at least, Rousseau, Lacoste and Fiocco and also dismisses the belief that “le gout francais” was the only style in permitted in France. It might have dominated but by the 1730s Italian music was clearly jostling for a place and le Querelle des Bouffons – in which Rousseau himself took part – was not far off the horizon.

Rameau has the lion’s share of the operatic selections and it is hard not to select Un tendre intérêt vous appelle … Tristes apprêts from Castor et Pollux as a personal highlight. Ms Sampson captures perfectly the aching grief of what is in effect incredibly simple music with no effects, and Skidmore coaxes wonderfully delicate playing from Ex Cathedra, highlighting the exquisite instrumental colours of the score. At the opposite end of the Rameau spectrum comes Amour, lance tes traits from Platée with its more angular writing and runs and trills effortlessly delivered by the soprano.

Equally charming are the selections from La lyre enchantée from Les surprises de l’Amour which also included Anacréon. Juxtaposing vocal and choral movements with dances, Écoutons un doux frémissement with its doleful recorders underlines Rameau’s unique ability in creating contrasting sound worlds within very short spaces.

Lacoste’s Ah! quand reviendront nos beaux jours? from Philomèle, which opens the entire recital might fit the mold of French opera of this period, but it’s a beautifully emotive and sustained scene for soprano and chorus.

I’ve always associated Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville with religious music – especially his delightful motets. From his wonderful cantata Venite, exsultemus we have ravishing performances of Venite adoremus and Hodie si vocem – with its sustained choral writing. But we also have Gasouillats auzeléts from Daphnis et Alcimadure. Again there is an elegance to the orchestral writing and a natural fluidity to the vocal line – so very Galant – that belies Mondonville’s relative obscurity.

Michel-Richard de Lalande music written with court pomp and splendor in mind is infused with eloquence as Ms Sampson alternates with full-voiced choral writing in Regna terre. The Te Deum laudamus, opening with a Sinfonie reminiscent of Charpentier – is refreshing as is the contrast between the salon- like Tu rex gloriae and the rapture of Tu ad liberandum suscepturus hominem. Most commonly sung at Christmas, Viderunt omnes termini terrae has an almost rustic charm with its oboe writing and folk-like vocal line which then morphs into some truly virtuosic writing for singer and instrumentalist.

Joseph Hector Fiocco – hailing from Brussels – is the most forward-looking of the composers on this disc. Stylistically his Laudate pueri is written in an very confident early Classical style – the jaunty opening movement is followed by a heartfelt middle movement with obbligato flute and joyous Alleluia that could easily have been written by a Hasse or Bach sibling.

Remembered for his theoretical writings as well as Le devin du village, it’s surprising that philosopher Rousseau also wrote this rather charming, expertly constructed Galant-style Salve regina. The orchestration includes horns which give it an incredibly warm glow. The simplicity of the vocal line – much as with Devin – with the finely wrought motivic interplay with the violins illustrates that he was a rather accomplished composer as well as writer. The more dramatic Ad te clamamus with its declamatory opening, sighing and chromatic phrases at suspiramus and flentes demonstrate that the composer was well acquainted with all the technique for reflecting the words through the music. The closing O Clemens, o pia which would not be out of place on a stage for some lovelorn heroine, reminds me that in the Eighteenth Century the line between stage and sacristy became increasingly blurred.

Carolyn Sampson was born to sing this music. Coupled with incredible technique and a bright, gleaming soprano, she has an innate ability to light the vocal line from within. Her interpretation is second to none – finding the right tone and balance to suit both music and mood. From the beguiling simplicity with which she sings Tristes apprêts she effortlessly moves to the thrills and trills of Mondonville and every composer in between.

And Ex Cathedra – orchestra and chorus – similarly revel in this amazing music, directed with both grace and a complete understanding of the period’s style by Jeffrey Skidmore.

This isn’t just a recital of French music inspired by the clearly talented and love soprano Marie Fel, it is a disc to cherish and return to, constantly.

  1. […] to Mozart’s music and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Speranza Scapucci play with grace. Carolyn Sampson produced a recital based around Eighteenth Century French soprano Marie Fel and it is a masterpiece […]

  2. […] the septet of singers. I have long been an admirer of Blaze – is recording of duets with Carolyn Sampson is excellent and his performance as Katie Mitchell in ENO’s Jephtha many years ago will stay with […]

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