Jordi Savall Plays Music of the French Baroque with Élan and Joie de Vivre

United StatesUnited States Various: Principal players of Le Concert des Nations: Jordi Savall (director and bass viol), Marc Hantaï (flute), Pierre Hantai (harpsichord), Manfredo Kraemer (violin), Philippe Pierlot (bass viol), Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York, 16.4.2015 (SSM)

Anon.: Concert donné à Louis XIII en 1627 (selected by André Danican Philidor)
Sainte-Colombe: Concert No. 44 à deux violes esgales, “Tombeau  les Regrets”
Lully: Selections from Le bourgeois gentilhomme
Couperin: Prélude from Deuxième concert royal
Muzette from Troisième concert royal
Chaconne légère from Troisième concert royal
Marais: Sonnerie de Ste-Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris
RameauPièces de clavecin en concerts, Cinquième concert
Forqueray: La du Vaucel, La Leclair
Leclair: Sonata in D Major, Op. 2, N. 8

There was a time not long ago when the only music ever heard from the French Baroque period was the opening theme for Masterpiece Theater. This fanfare-rondeau by Jean-Joseph Mouret epitomized what was thought to be the music of that time: pompous, stiff, overblown. Why would one waste time listening to music written by the bewigged Lully, Couperin, Marais or other effete dandies, the servants of equally decadent royalty? Like peeling an onion, at the core was nothing; or so it seemed to many.

There had always been an interest in composers such as Bach and Handel, but with the availability of recorded music, it didn’t take much time for listeners to tire of the same works recorded over and over again. This was true as well for live concerts and music heard on the radio. But those who were young in the 1960s and 1970s questioned all areas of the arts, pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable music in terms both of what music was chosen and how it was played. Music of Bach’s time and before was brought into focus; emphasis was given to the way music was being played so that it reflected as closely as possible the style in which the music was first performed; and iconoclastic conductors and performers appeared and were cultivated.

Before this, when works by Bach, Handel and earlier composers was performed, it was done with the assumption that the modern orchestra would “improve” this music by using instruments technically designed to hit a high note with as much ease as possible. Why would anyone in his right mind want to play a valveless trumpet with notes produced by shaping one’s lips when valved trumpets are available. Poor Bach, had he only the resources that Stokowski had, he too might have transcribed his organ music for a large orchestra and pumped up the dramatic moments as Beethoven or Mahler would have done. If the Messiah was to be made palatable, a huge chorus and orchestra were required. Most of the music before Bach was thought to be of interest only to specialists and scholars; swaths of scores were sitting in libraries gathering dust.

The music world was clearly ready for a change. Glenn Gould appeared on the scene not to dig up unknown music from the past, but to free existing scores from the confines of scholars’ desks. The question then became, if Bach’s music can be as exciting as Gould’s performances make it, what else is out there that hasn’t been heard or has been heard but in the wrong way. Nicolas Harnoncourt discovered that Bach’s cantatas, played with instruments of the period and featuring the voices of young church choristers, contain some of the most glorious music ever written. Other discoveries by the iconoclasts followed: Ralph Kirkpatrick’s revival of Domenico Scarlatti, William Christie’s performances of Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Jean-Philippe Rameau.

This brings us around to Jordi Savall and Le Concert des Nations. Savall is one of earliest and most respected proponents of music before Bach, favoring works that make use of his preferred instrument, the bass viol. The performance here ranged from anonymous pieces for a concert given to royalty in 1627 to a sonata by Jean-Marie Leclair composed a century later. While I knew that the entire Concert des Nations couldn’t fit on the stage at Zankel Hall, I was a bit surprised to see only five chairs on-stage. Given the fact that some of the music requires additional instruments, much color was lost. Both the selections from Le bourgeois gentilhomme and the Concert donné à Louis XIII en 1627 require winds and percussion. In fact, the latter’s complete title is Concert donné à Louis XIII en 1627 par les 24 Violons et les 12 Grands hautbois. I understand that it might be prohibitive to bring in that many instrumentalists for this one event, but not having even one voice per part is the opposite of what would be expected of an early music group.

It’s worth noting that regardless of instruments left out, the five artists here are independent, highly regarded musicians, and each showed himself in the best light. Pierre Hantaï is considered one of Europe’s top harpsichordists, with a long list of praised recordings. For most of the concert Hantaï played as a continuo member, but in Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin he is one of the soloists, and some repositioning of the instrument should have taken place for it to be heard more clearly. Manfredo Kraemer was head of a respected, if oddly named, early music chamber group called The Rare Fruits Council. Marc Hantaï and Philippe Pierlot (not to be confused with Philippe Pierlot, son of the famous oboist Pierre Pierlot) are also well-respected soloists. Kraemer’s playing stood out above the others, but he also had much more music to play.

Stan Metzger

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