A lovely concert of French music from Preussens Hofmusik in Berlin

GermanyGermany Naudot, L. and F. Couperin, Boismortier, and Bernier: Regina Koncz (soprano), Preussens Hofmusik (Thomas Beyer [flute], Laura Volkwein, Jueyoung Yang [violins], Otto Tolonen [viola da gamba]) / Matthias Wilke (harpsichord/director). Apollosaal, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 7.1.2024. (MB)

Preussens Hofmusik © Monika Rittershaus

Jacques-Christophe Naudot – Flute Concerto in G major, Op.17 No.5
Louis Couperin – Pavanne in F-sharp minor
François Couperin – Concert Royal No.4 in E minor
Joseph Bodin de Boismortier – Suite No.4 in A major
Nicolas Bernier – Cantata: Le Caffé

Autumn’s Barocktage brought Charpentier’s Médée to the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, conducted by Simon Rattle and directed by Peter Sellars. Alas, I was in the end unable to go, but as a consolation prize heard this intelligently programmed concert of French Baroque music from soprano Regina Koncz and members of the Staatskapelle Berlin in their Preussens Hofmusik incarnation, directed from the harpsichord by Staatskapelle violist Matthias Wilke.

Jacques-Christophe Naudot was represented by a flute concerto in G major, a fine introduction to the concert and performance as a whole, both in instrumentation and in uniting elements of French and Italian styles. It also showed that, whilst Naudot was unquestionably a ‘flute composer’, he was far from only that. Outer movements, played as skilfully and comprehendingly by the one-to-a-part orchestra – the sole occasion on which we heard both violinists – as by flautist Thomas Beyer, led us down a broadly Italianate path, albeit with strong elements of French ‘language’ in melody and harmony. Flute and violin duets delighted as if this were chamber music — which, at least on this occasion, indeed it was. A richly expressive central Adagio revealed Naudot still more to be possessed of an individual voice, with roots in Lully yet not to be reduced to any one particular influence.

Louis Couperin and Naudot’s friend Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, another ‘flute composer’ though more than that, were both to be heard in works for solo harpsichord, played by Wilke. The grave beauty of the former’s F-sharp minor Pavanne was brought sympathetically to life in all its often surprising harmonic colour. The latter’s A major Suite offered four character pieces, ‘La Veloutée’, ‘L’Indéterminée’, ‘La Frénétique’, and ‘La Brunette’, whose vivid titles might have led the more Romantically inclined to expect greater contrast than was forthcoming. Wilke certainly attended to their particularities, but also lightly imparted a degree of unity to them, again straddling that line of ‘national style’.

In between came Couperin le Grand: the fourth and final of his first set of Concert royaux, its series of dances broadly alternating the ‘French’ and the ‘Italian’, explicitly so in the third and fourth ‘Courante française’ for spirited harpsichord solo and ‘Courante à l’italienne’ (violin, harpsichord, and gamba, but no flute). The two ‘goûts’ would be reunited in his second set, the Nouveaux concerts, ou les goûts réunis, but here there was a spirit of light, civilised contrast, reminding us what a joy it was to hear eighteenth-century French music played in such enlightened fashion on a mixture of modern and ‘period’ instruments, equally well paced and shaped, without vibrato-Verbot, yet likewise without trace of crashing anachronism. The courtly phrasing of the opening ‘Prélude’, the grace of the ‘Sarabande’, and the infections invitation to the dance of the closing ‘Forlane’, intriguing episode for gamba and harpsichord included: these and more contributed to a suite greater, yet certainly not heavier, than the sum of its parts.

Nicolas Bernier ‘reunited’ or, perhaps better, united the French and Italian tastes in ‘the other’ coffee cantata, Le Caffé by not dissimilar alternation or, as Jean-Paul C. Montagnier puts it in his New Grove article on the composer, ‘equilibrium’, ‘vigorous recitatives and da capo airs … follow each other freely, while the expressive melody, with few wide intervals or long melismas, is rooted more in the French tradition’. Here the Gallic grace of the instrumental ‘Prélude’ betrayed just a hint of a shadow, but by and large, the mood was (rightly) bright and clear, as was Regina Koncz’s brilliant, idiomatic, and yes, expressive singing. Her invocation of ‘Caffé’ in the second of her airs seemed, by one of those tricks of history that are mere coincidence, to pre-empt Bernier’s more celebrated Thuringian contemporary. And the shameless thrill of the third air’s melismata, all the more startling for their trespass against accustomed style, was as stylishly despatched and unfussily shaded as anything in this lovely concert. It was a fitting thought to repeat it as an encore.

Mark Berry

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