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Michel Lambert [Source: Wikipedia]
24 Dec 2013

Les Arts Florissants: Airs sérieux et à boire

In this unusual programme of late-seventeenth-century airs de cour, Les Arts Florissants presented a flowing sequence of songs for solo and ensemble voices with chamber accompaniment, the intimacy of the Wigmore Hall neatly mimicking the privacy of the royal chambers of Louis XIV in which the courtly compositions were originally performed.

Les Arts Florissants: Airs sérieux et à boire

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Michel Lambert [Source: Wikipedia]


The career of singer and theorbo player Michel Lambert may be a mere footnote to that of his more prominent son-in-law, Jean-Baptiste Lully, but it was Lambert who — having initially arrived at the court as a ballet dancer — served the King as Maitre de la Musique de la Chambre du Roi for 36 years until his death in 1696. Working in collaboration with Lully, the King’s perennial favourite, Lambert devised and produced lavish entertainments — the imposing dramatic works and church compositions that we most readily associate with the monarch’s reign. But, in addition, he also composed approximately 300 songs, numbers which are often self-consciously idealistic or sardonically witty — fodder to flatter the monarch and his fawning courtiers.

Adopting a quasi-operatic approach, Les Arts Florissants, almost imperceptibly directed from the harpsichord by William Christie, interspersed Lambert’s airs with songs by his contemporaries — Marc-Antoine Charpentier, François Couperin, Joseph Chabanceau de la Barre and Honoré d’Ambruys — weaving a seamless dramatic thread. They thus enacted an inventive, exuberant tale of love, lust and loyalty, in which the wedding plans of soprano Emmanuelle de Negri and baritone Marc Mauillon were interrupted by the amorous interventions of tenor Cyril Auvity and mezzo soprano Anna Reinhold, with bass Lisandro Abadie wryly commenting on the occasionally dissolute goings-on.

The air de cour was eventually subsumed by the rising tide of French opera; perhaps Les Art Florissants were arguing for the significance of Lambert’s dramatic airs in the development of the French opera tradition that would come to fruition at the hands of Lully and Rameau. Thus, the musical delights were served up as theatrical feast for our delectation, highlighting not the individual nature of each song, but linking the parts in a continuous progression. This ‘staging’ did have the advantage of introducing some variety — of pace, context and texture — into a series of songs which are broadly consistent in idiom and ambience, and also allowed for broader musical sweeps without the interruptions of audience applause.

Yet, often the playful antics — lovelorn swooning, secret embraces — seemed distracting and unnecessary. These courtly airs are intimate and subtle, rather than self-indulgently theatrical. Rick Jones’s programme notes suggest that in the satirical airs à boire the essence can be reduced to the mocking maxim, ‘Love is pain, therefore kill me’. But, it seems to me that there is a closer relationship between the poetry and its musical expression: that the sentiments of these melancholy, at times explicit, lyric poems — which admittedly do frequently express the anguish of the spurned or dejected lover, one who is almost without hope — are those of genuine loss and regret. Too much tom-foolery risks diminishing the unaffected emotional intensity conveyed by Lambert’s polished style in which, through scrupulous repetitions, elegant ornamentations and affecting chromaticism, text, voices and instruments fuse inseparably.

However, this misgiving aside (and judging from the audience’s jubilant reception, I suspect my reservations were shared by few!), musical standards were unwaveringly superb, voices and instruments in perfect balance. In Lambert’s ‘Le repos, l’ombre, le silence’ (Stillness, gloom, silence) the simplicity of the airy texture, with treble and bass lines widely spaced, emphasised the confidential, complicit mood; while the intertwining voices in ‘Ah, qui voudra désormais s’engager’ (Ah, who now will ever wish to pledge his love?) and ‘Il faut mourir plutôt que de changer’ (’Tis better to die than e’er to change) created restless exigency. Auvity’s solo rendition of Lambert’s ‘Iris n’est plus’ revealed an expressive flexibility in tone, rhythm and response to the text that provided an engaging contrast to the more homogeneous approach of the other singers, who tended towards an open, full and even style of delivery — undoubtedly beautiful but rather more ‘operatic’, projecting outwards, than Auvity’s beguiling manner of drawing the audience in.

Reinhold and Mauillon gave a deeply moving performance of ‘Le doux silence de nos bois’ (The soft silence of the woods) by Honoré d’Ambruys. Above the repeating rising bass line, the mezzo soprano’s opulent legato radiantly embraced the ornate melodic line while the tenor provided sweet yet more grainy foundations, suggesting in the first stanza the happiness of youth, ‘the time for tender loves and pleasures’ and, in the second, the gentle melancholy of regret.

Compositions by Marc-Antoine Charpentier introduced a lighter, more ribald tone, most particularly in ‘Intermèdes nouveaux du Mariage forcé’, incidental music for Molière’s farcical drama Le Mariage force in which the elegant rhythms of the minuet and gavotte were overwhelmed by the grotesque antics of the three male singers as Charpentier parodies the theatrical style and excesses of his Italian rivals. Auvity, Mauillon and Abadie delighted in the parodic vein, their ‘belle symphonie’ a mocking medley of onomatopoeic whelps and woofs; joined by de Negri and Reinhold, they formed parodic homage to the Soul of Music and Genius of Harmony aloft in the Wigmore Hall cupola, an ironic visual accompaniment to Charpentier’s final line: ‘Oh! Le jolie concert et la belle harmonie!’

William Christie’s ever-urbane accompaniments — all stylish grace notes and refined countermelodies — were never intrusive. Theorbo player, Thomas Dunford displayed effortless virtuosity, and for once the instrument’s intricacies were clearly audible, a superb balance being maintained throughout. Complementing Dunford’s agile embellishments, the string lines of Myriam Rignol (viola da gamba) and violinists Florence Malgoire and Tami Troman entwined tastefully and lamentingly with the voices. The rhythmic suppleness of Rignol’s varying chaconne line in the two-part air, ‘Quand une âme est bien atteinte’ (Once a soul is captivated) wonderfully captured the changes of affekt.

The only air employing all five voices was the final song by Lambert, a setting of Jean de la Fontaine’s ‘Tout l’Univers obéit à ‘l’amour’ in which de Negri’s pure soprano soared above the other voices before all came to rest with the fittingly homophonous closing line, ‘Aimez, aimez le reste n’est rien’.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

William Christie, director; Emmanuelle de Negri, soprano; Anna Reinhold, mezzo-soprano; Cyril Auvity, high tenor; Marc Mauillon, baritone; Lisandro Abadie, bass. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday 19th December 2013.

Lambert, ‘D’un feu secret je me sens consommer’, ‘Le repos, l’ombre, le silence’, ‘Ah! qui voudra désormais s’engager?’, ‘Il faut mourir plustost que de changer’; Couperin, ‘Épitaphe d’un paresseux’, ‘Les Pellerines’; Lambert, ‘Iris n’est plus’, ‘Bien que l’amour’; Chabanceau de la Barre, ‘Quand une âme est bien atteinte’; Charpentier, ‘Intermède nouveau from Le Mariage forcé’; Lambert, ‘Chantez, chantez petits oiseaux’, ‘Pour vos beaux yeux, Iris’, ‘Que d’amans separez languissent nuit et jour; d’Ambruys, ‘Le doux silence de nos bois’; Charpentier, ‘Ayant bu du vin clairet’, ‘Auprès du feu l’on fait l’amour, ‘Vos petits yeux’; Lambert, ‘Jugez de ma douleur’, ‘Il est vrai, l’amour est charmant’, ‘Tout l’univers obéit à l’Amour’.

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