United States Leclair, Marais, Telemann, Rameau, Handel: Amid the Charms of Nature, Juilliard415, Elizabeth Blumenstock (concertmaster), Jordi Savall (director), Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 31.1.2015 (SSM)
Jean-Marie Leclair: Overture to Scylla and Glaucus
Marin Marais: From Alcyone: March pour les Matelots, Tempeste
Georg Philipp Telemann: “Hamburger Ebb und Fluth”
Jean-Philippe Rameau: Orages, tonnerres et tremblementes de terre
F. Handel: Suite from Water Music
Rameau: Final Contredanse from Les Boréades
Jordi Savall’s visits to Juilliard are eagerly awaited annual events that have been enhanced by his imaginative program choices. Last year he covered music of Shakespeare’s time. This year, appropriately enough in a city digging out from under a few inches of snow that caused street and public transportation closures, Savall chose “program” music: music depicting storms, thunder and earthquakes. Music appreciation classes introduce children to classical music by asking them to listen and then describe what they hear. But as we refine our musical tastes, we learn that music itself cannot tell a story. Where is the sound of water in Handel’s Water Music? Who could distinguish between Telemann’s “Ebb” and his “Fluth” without a program telling us this is what we are meant to hear. Similarly, the flute or piccolo can imitate the song of a bird; but if there’s no melody, all one hears are notes from a high-pitched instrument.
There is nothing connected to inclement weather in the overture to Leclair’s sole opera, Scylla and Glaucus, although there is later in the work. This grossly under-appreciated opera is filled with magical music. Written in 1746, it falls just short of the classical era and blends inherited Baroque opera with the developing “reform” operas of Gluck. The arias are filled with catchy tunes, charming interludes, dances and choral accompaniment. Leclair knew he had a hit with this overture. Not only does he repeat it two more times in the opera, he later transcribed it as the opening work in his Opus 13 set of Ouvertures et Sonates en Trio. It is a classic model of the French ouverture with its broad, stately pace and the use of dotted and double-dotted notes. The middle section is a short fugue leading to a recapitulation of the opening section. Savall took the first part of the overture a little slowly, and although it coalesced, it verged on the edge of losing its structure.
Marin Marais, for those whose memories are short, was the young man in the film Tous les matins du monde who comes to learn at the feet of the great viola da gambist, Sainte Colombe. Marais’ opera Alcyone is another water-related work. The “March pour les Matelots” played here is an abbreviated version of the march in the opera which has alternating repetitions of the theme by soloists and chorus. The piece entitled “Tempeste” incorporates some of the stock instruments used for sound effects, including the wind machine. Whether it’s a tempest or a thunderstorm or just heat lightening really doesn’t matter: this is exciting music, played here with much enthusiasm. There was demanding instrumental material, and the student orchestra played as well as one would expect from any professional group.
The Overture-Suite “Hamburger Ebb und Fluth” is really no different in content and style from dozens of other pieces that Telemann wrote during his long life. Standard dance names like “gavotte” are given to the individual movements, but so too are programmatic titles such as “Naiads at play.” There was much variety, and Savall was able by subtle gestures to bring out the contrasts and create the particular spirit of each movement.
Rameau was a great colorist with the ability to create small and unique musical sound worlds. Others had composed tempests, winds and storms, but none were as powerful as Rameau’s. He knew what to do with woodwinds and brass to let them rage beyond the more traditional imitations. Since each Rameau movement is strongly defined, it is possible to set up a suite of movements from different compositions and make them work as an entity. Marc Minkowski created a CD playlist and sampler of Rameau ‘s interludes entitled “Une symphonie imaginaire,” and Savall did something similar here: he chose 1 to 3 movements from four different operas..
In the final piece, a Suite from Handel’s Water Music, the addition to the orchestra of brass added a brilliance to a program that up to this point had felt dark. From the opening salvos of the near-perfect brass, it was clear we were hearing music substantially more interesting than the previous works. The orchestra performed this piece, which for many in the audience has become hackneyed through overplaying, with a vigor and a physicality not seen in the evening’s earlier works.
This was a well-played concert which is to be praised even more highly for having been rehearsed in a shorter time than usual due to the weather.