‘Women in Baroque Music’
St John’s, Smith Square, 16 May 2015
‘Canto dell dame’
María Cristina Kiehr soprano, Jean- Marc Aymes, harpsichord, organ & director.
On the cover of the festival programme book are the words “Joy / Passion / Religion / Love / Death / Adoration / Intensity. The Saturday afternoon concert of 17th century Italian music given by Concerto Soave included all of those aspects, sometimes in the same piece. Featuring five female composers, the music ranged from the very beginning of the Baroque up to the end of the 17th century. The earliest composer was Francesca Caccini (1587-1641), daughter of Giulio Caccini (represented here by Peter Philips’ harpsichord transcription of his Amarillo, mia Bella). Francesca Caccini made her debut aged 13 at the Medici Court, singing at the wedding of Henri IV of France to a Medici bride. After time in France she returned to become the leading female singer in Florence. Apart from one opera (the earliest known one by a woman) her only surviving music was published in 1618. The three pieces demonstrated the early recitativo style of vocal writing, with the distinctive ornaments of the time of Monteverdi and, in Chi è costei, the intensity of a madrigal. Her large scale Lasciatemi qui solo, with its plaintive repeated cries of ‘Let me die’, could have been a scene from an opera.
Caccini’s music was in sharp contrast to the opening piece by Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704), a nun from the age of 16, and ending up as the provincial Mother Superior. Her Ave suavis dilectio, one of around 100 dedicated to the Virgin, showed an assured grasp of the mature Baroque style and form. A similar, but more developed example of such writing came with Barbara Strozzi’s extended cantata Hor ch’Apollo, published in 1664, and a peep into the oft-narrated Arcadian story of Phyllis. The pieces by Caterina Assandra (c1590->1618) surrounded a Canzon by her teacher Benedetto Rè, one of two pieces by him that she included in her 1609 collection of motets. Assandra was represented by her Duo Seraphim, O quam suavis, and O salutaris hostia, demonstrating the move towards the early Baroque style.
María Cristina Kiehr sang with a gentle, unforced and mellifluous voice, ideally suited to this repertoire. The way she incorporated ornaments into the musical line was particularly apt. The five members of Concerto Soave accompanied with delicacy, although the heat in the hall produced a few intonation (and possibly keyboard temperant) issues.
‘Music for Marie Fel’
Ex Cathedra Consort & Baroque Orchestra
Carolyn Sampson, soprano, Jeffrey Skidmore, conductor.
The main evening concert focused on the Parisian soprano Marie Fel (1713-94), Voltaire’s ‘adorable nightingale’, who captivated composers and audiences (and Louis XV) during one of French music’s most exciting times. Narrator Matthew Barber took on the role of the rather confused King (but, mercifully, sans period dress), to the extent that Jeffrey Skidmore bowed to him, and Carolyn Sampson flirted with him, the latter something that Marie Fell seems wont to do. Divided into sections reflecting Marie Fel’s live, loves and singing career, we started by standing for the entry of the King. Then came Michel-Richard de Lalande’s Te Deum laudamus, written for the Sun King, but a favourite of Louis XV and performed for him by Marie Fel. As the King himself (in Simon Robson’s humorous script) reminded us, the God that was being praised was, to all intents and purposes, himself. His story reflected the contrast between his born status as a divine ruler and Fel’s created status as a divine singer, dispite being a ‘mere commoner’.
Well known composers such as Rameau, Lalande and Mondonville were joined by pieces by the likes of Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville, Joseph-Hector Fiocco, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Louis Lacoste. Fel’s own surviving vocal score for Fiocco’s Laudate pueri Dominum has her own ornamentation marked in – there was a lovely gentle section just before the flamboyant Alleluya where the voice was joined by 2 flutes and viola. Rameau (an “ugly, cantankerous old sod”, according to the King) was the most represented composer, notably with music, and a role, specially composed for Marie Fel – the Scene for La Folie (from Platée). Her love life came to for in the King’s commentary, including his own trists with Mlle Fel. Cazanove’s visit was recalled, his surprise at finding that she had three children by different fathers perhaps putting him off taking things further. Although she remained unmarried, she eventually settled with Maurice Quentin de La Tour, previously a neighbour and the artist of the surviving gorgeous pastel portrait of Fel.
As well as being a fascinating insight into the life of a remarkable women, this concert also explored the particularly rich musical tradition of 18th century Paris. And what better personification of Maria Fel than soprano Carolyn Sampson. She not only sang beautifully, with an excellent grasp of the Gallic style, but she added much to the dramatic aspect of the evening. Jeffry Skidmore directed with his usual sense of cooperation and collaboration, as masterclass in conducting. His Ex Cathedra Consort & Baroque Orchestra was both on excellent form, with notably instrumental contributions from Margaret Faultless, violin, Andrew Skidmore, cello, Rachel Brown, flute and Gail Hennessy, oboe. Mike Brain’s bassoon made several distinctive tonal contributions, one of the nicest timbres of this period in French music.
This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and will be broadcast during the Early Music Show on Sunday 24 May and will be available for the following 30 days for those with access to BBC iPlayer.
‘Late o’Clock Baroque’
An informal late-night concert followed, with Jonathan Rees and Vladimir Waltham exploring the dying days of the bass viol and the birth of its competitor, the cello. The seating was rearranged into a slightly awkward square ‘in the round’ format, with some people sitting on the stage, but many unable to see the performers at floor level. it was a shame there was no noticeable link with the theme of the festival, either in the music chosen or the choice of two male performers. It would have been good to have taken advantage of the festival theme by featuring some of the many extremely talented young female performers for a concert like this. That said, this was a well presented and well played concert with pieces by Forqueray, Barrière, Masse, and an interesting suite formed by combining pieces by de Machy and Bach. Forqueray’s rather lugubrious Suite No 1 in d (from Pièces de viole, 1747) was the only work played on two viols. A late concert start meant I had to slip out before the last piece.