Sunday, April 13, 2014

Early Music Now: Four Nations Ensemble's French Glitter and Passion

Jason Swearing Eternal Affection to Medea,
Jean-Francois de Troy, 1742-43. National Gallery, London.
The glittering virtuosity of late French Baroque music dazzled once again, as Early Music Now presented the Four Nations Ensemble at the UWM Zelazo Center.

Perhaps the most extravagantly bejeweled music came in eight selections from J-P Rameau's Pieces de Clavecin, from 1724. Andrew Appel, the ensemble's harpsichordist and leader, had a brief memory lapse in one selection, but what matter if a few pearls fall the the floor amid such abundance?

Appel otherwise displayed total command of this highly virtuosic music. It comes encrusted with the most extravagant ornamentation, with much written and more expected of the player. The interpretive challenge lies in maintaining tension between the momentum in these stylized, vestigal dances and the desire to savor the ornaments. Appel measured that beautifully, sometimes integrating the turns and trills into the metric flow and sometimes stepping out of the dance to show off a particular delicacy. The harpsichord, with its dry way of presenting each note particularly, even at high speed, is the perfect vehicle for this aesthetic.

So is the voice of soprano Dominique Labelle. Her dark, powerful yet wonderfully agile singing conveyed both the weighty drama of L.M. Clerambault's Medée and its virtuoso display. This remarkable "cantata for voice and instruments," from 1710, is something of a mono-opera. Labelle, supported by Appel, violinist Tatiana Chulochnikova, cellist Loretta O'Sullivan and, in one number, flutist Colin St. Martin, ran the gamut of high emotions in a series of charged recitatives, airs and a vivement section that serves as a spectacular cadenza.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, The Love Song, c 1717.
The ensemble doesn't merely play continuo as Medea ponders her revenge on her faithless husband. Clerambault gave each player, cellist included, explosive solos that cut through the texture and stretches of instrumental coloratura intricately twined with the vocal lines. The singer and the ensemble breathed and phrased as one. The players gave Labelle the support and confidence to let the melodies bloom and get to the black heart of Medea's emotions.

The first half was more civilized and courtly, with J-M Leclair's Sonata for Violin and Continuo Opus 9 No. 3, two airs de cour by Michel Lambert (1610-1696), Rameau's air Heureux Oiseaux, and a Telemann's French-styled Deuxième Suite for all four instrumentalists.

Labelle and the players made it all light, dazzling and sly, all about plasir. This is the French rococo we know, that of Fragonard and Watteau, and it was lovely. But the revelation of this program is that the era wasn't all charming flirtation and glittering surfaces. Deep in the consciousness, passion stirred and Medea lurked.

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