Chamber Music New Zealand
Les Talens Lyriques (Christophe Rousset – harpsichord, Gilone Gaubert-Jacques and Gabriel Grosbard – violins, Atsushi Sakaï – viola da gamba)
Marin Marais: Suite No 5
Antoine Forqueray: Première Suite
François Couperin: Les nations: ‘La Piemontaise’
Jean-Marie Leclair: Deuxième récréation de musique, Opus 8
Jean-Philippe Rameau: Pièces de clavecin – Troisième concert
Couperin: Le Parnasse ou l’Apothéose de Corelli
Michael Fowler Centre
Wednesday 13 April, 7:30 pm
As a rather excessive Francophile, I was more than delighted at the prospect of hearing the distinguished French baroque ensemble, Les Talens Lyriques, live in my home town. Knowing the strange and sometimes narrow musical tastes of some chamber music lovers whose horizons are often limited to the German and Italian lands, I rather feared that the unfamiliar music of the French baroque might have drawn a rather small audience. But I have misjudged my compatriots: there was a very decent-sized audience in the stalls of the Michael Fowler Centre.
This distinguished ensemble was born in 1991, inspired by its present leader, Christophe Rousset, and their name is mentioned in the company of the English Baroque Soloists, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Academy of Ancient Music, Musica Antiqua Köln, Concentus Musicus Wien, the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century or their compatriots, Les musiciens du Louvre. Though, being just a quartet on this tour, their repertoire is different from that of larger ensembles.
The programme was somewhat chronologically arranged, starting with Marin Marais, a Suite that reflected one extreme of the French style, melody that was so subtle and unassertive as to be hard to apprehend; its beauty lay in its elusiveness and the finesse and taste (words of Leclair quoted in the programme notes) of its embellishments. Though the dance-derived movements were stronger and of course rhythmic, and melody was of great refinement. It was the remarkable deftness and elegance of the performance however, that was the overwhelming impact of the music. The harpsichord is by nature almost excessively reclusive (we should have been in a more suitable venue, such as the Town Hall, its fixing disgracefully stalled, to capture its sound better) but its important support was audible if you really turned your attention there. The two violins, both in sublime duetting and alone, and above all, the astonishing virtuosity and beauty of Atsushi Sakaï’s viola da gamba held between them the essence of the style.
Most of Antoine Forqueray’s music has been lost but his Suite in D minor, for harpsichord and gamba, one of the five surviving, provided a vehicle for Sakaï’s almost supernatural command of his magnificent instrument which could sound in its upper register, more like a violin than either a cello or a viola ever does. Not only that, but this endlessly complex, fantastically embellished composition was played without the score.
Then we came to Couperin (next time you’re in Paris, visit the church of Saint-Gervais where the family dynasty reigned for generations; behind the Hôtel de Ville in the 4th arrondissement). The first of the two Couperin works was one of the four suites or, as Couperin wrote, Ordres, entitled Les Nations, each celebrating one of the Catholic powers: France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and the Savoy dynasty of Piedmont. This was the fourth, La Piémontaise. ‘Each is a combination of an Italianate trio sonata with its free-form virtuosity and a large-scale and elaborate French dance suite’ (quote from a Naxos recording). The first movement dominated the piece, with numerous switches back and forth from pensive to meditative phases, from the French to the Italian style, though the Piedmontese, or Italian, character rather dominated the suite. Again, the performance spoke of a deep-rooted idiomatic understanding of the essential Couperin on the part of Les Talens.
Leclair was the most nearly ‘classical’ of the five composers in the programme: he lived from 1697-1764; the notes refrained from retelling the tale of his death, murdered in a Paris street, believed to be related to his separation from his wife a few years before. (If you’re curious, read Gérard Géfen, L’Assassinat de Jean-Marie Leclair, Belfond, 1990, which offers a solution to the mystery). But there’s nothing shady about the music, the Second Récréation de musique, its full title adding ‘for easy performance by two flutes or two violins’. Bearing clear marks of his country, it is easily placed in its era and nationality, along with other composers of the early 18th century, not excluding Couperin; it contains occasional operatic gestures. The second movement, Forlane, in triple time, was quite an extended piece that carried echoes of German and Italian music of his period. And then came an un-Bach-like Chaconne – danceable, lively. And here was one of the places where I felt the harpsichord was a bit disadvantaged in this space.
Rameau is probably the French composer most familiar with the general musical public through the revival of all his operas, mainly by French companies, in the past 20 years. And indeed the tune in the last movement, Tambourines, reminded me of a tune in one of them. Almost a contemporary of Bach, Handel and D Scarlatti, Rameau’s life before opera, which began aged 50, consisted of theoretical treatises and harpsichord and chamber music. In fact the five ‘concerts’ or suites of the Pièces de clavecin en concerts, published well after the three books of Pièces de clavecin, were the only real chamber music he wrote. They played the third ‘concert’, which called for one violin (Gilone Gaubert-Jacques), gamba and harpsichord, with the latter playing an altogether more involved role than as merely a continuo instrument, and the result was three quite vividly characterized movements, brilliantly played. Particularly touching was the enchanting sotto voce ending of the second movement, La Timide.
And the concert ended with a second Couperin suite, Le Parnasse ou l’apothéose de Corelli, a famous musical excursion which speaks of his admiration for Corelli, the great Italian born fifteen years before Couperin. Here, all four players returned, and it was more entertaining as Rousset read (in French) the little introductory phrases before each short movement, describing Corelli’s reception by the muses as he arrives at Parnassus and he is introduced to Apollo. It seemed to reaffirm the return of French music to the mainstream, after the diversion to a somewhat contrived ‘French’ style cultivated by Lully and his followers.
All one’s hopes and expectations were fulfilled by these superb performers, admirable ambassadors for the revelatory music that they played.