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The Raleigh Chamber Music Guild opened its 2005/2006 Sights and Sounds on Sundays series with a musical visit to the France of Louis XIV in “Images of Life and Love in the French Baroque.” Ensemble Chanterelle, a trio consisting of Sally Sanford, soprano, Brent Wissick, viola da gamba and Catherine Liddell theorbo, presented this program of seldom performed music as a complement to the NCMA’s paintings in its European collection from the period.
While the music of the Renaissance and Middle Ages has been mined by countless performing groups to the point where it has almost become “standard repertory,” the enormous volume of the early Baroque music – especially in France – has been mostly ignored by comparison. We know only a fraction of the output of such giants of the period as Jean Baptiste Lully, Marc Antoine Charpentier and Marin Marais; and the average listener knows next to nothing about Nicolas Bernier, or Robert de Visée (late 17th cen.), whose works were all featured on the program. Sanford, however, a musicologist as well as a performer, has made it her mission to bring this repertory to life.
Chanterelle performed two cantatas by Nicolas Bernier (1664-1734), a minor composer known primarily for his keyboard music, but who probably composed Les Songes (The Dreams) and L’Amour aveuglé (Cupid Blinded) during a stint as sous-maitre de musique (assistant music director) at the Chapelle Royale. Both cantatas consist of an alternation of recitatives and da capo arias. Les Songes expatiates on the illusions and delusions of dreams. L’Amour aveuglé is a considerably more dated text to a modern audience, a neoclassical mini-drama on how Love became blind. Although, of course, all text was replete with appropriate tone painting, the music itself is pretty bland, laden with conventional melodic formulae and cadences.
As for the performance, Sanford, thankfully, used only a moderate amount of ornamentation and embellishment for the vocal line – and we trust her to know what is appropriate for this repertory. The problem came over the tessitura especially of the first piece, which lay far too high for Sanford’s best range. Without getting into the whole hornet’s nest of tuning, pitch and temperament in early music, we think that transposition down a whole tone or a minor third would have made both Sanford and the audience more comfortable. Singing in a slightly lower range would have made Sanford’s obvious musicianship more evident, as it did in L’Amour aveurglé, although transcription or retuning might have created even worse problems for the gamba and theorbo.
The program also included three sets of instrumental and vocal music, starting with a group of miscellaneous pieces for viola da gamba and theorbo by Marais. Wissick, who also specializes in the French Baroque, brought consummate skill and as much expression as possible into, again, a bland and convention-laden repertory. There followed a set of short vocal pieces by Lully, Charpentier, Visée, Jean-Baptiste de Bousset (1662-1725) and Joseph Chabanceau de la Barre (1633-1678), in which Sanford sang or recited the poems with the appropriate sense of humor.
The mysterious Robert de Visée was featured again for the final instrumental grouping on the program, a set of three pieces for solo theorbo, or bass lute. This instrument just looks so cool that you could just about play anything on it and people would be riveted. It’s also quite a trick to play, the lutenist being required to finger both the upper register strings attached to the short neck and the bass strings attached to the long neck theorbo. Liddell is an internationally renowned lutenist and has performed with Sanford for many years. It was a treat to hear her live, especially on this unusual instrument.
While early French Baroque music may not be on our list of desert-island music, it is interesting to hear it well played live. Oral program notes from the stage helped place the music in a cultural and artistic context, although a written essay would have been a welcome addition. The RCMG is mainstream enough now to provide program notes for all its concerts, especially when the SSS series often features less familiar repertory.