FROBERGER Edition Vol. 1: “Le Passage du Rhin” = Bob van Asperen, harpsichord – Aeolus (2 CDs) "Les Graces Francoises: Music of the French Baroque" = Les Graces – MSR

by | Jul 13, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

FROBERGER Edition Vol. 1: “Le Passage du Rhin” = JOHANN JACOB FROBERGER: Suite XVI in C Major; Suite XII in C Major; Suite XXVII in E Minor; Suite XIII in D Minor; Lamentation; Suite XXIX in E-flat Major;suite XIV in G Minor; Suite XXX in A Minor; Suite XX in D Major; Tombeau – Bob van Asperen, harpsichord – Aeolus AE-10024 (2 CDs), TT: 93’ [Distr. by Albany] *****:
“Les Grâces Françoises: Music of the French Baroque” = NICOLAS BERNIER: Le caffé from Cantates françoises; FRANCOIS COUPERIN: Neuvième concert, intitulé “Ritratto dell’amore”; MARIN MARAIS: Pieces in A Minor from Pièces de violes, 3ème livre; JACQUES DUPHLY: Pieces in D Major from Pièces de clavecin, 3ème livre; MICHEL PIGNOLET DE MONTECLAIRE: Ariane et Bachus from Cantates à une et à deux voix avec simphonie, 3ème livre – Les Grâces – MSR Classics MS 1396 [Distr. by Albany], 76:45 ***:
Here we have two discs that represent very different approaches to Baroque programming. The CD from harpsichordist Bob van Asperen is scholarly in all its doings, presenting a series of Froberger suites with frankly programmatic tendencies—at least each bears a lengthy subtitle. The other disc titled Les Grâces Françoisesis a rather casually-assembled survey of eighteenth-century French music both vocal and instrumental, the instrumental music somewhat frustratingly served up in bits and pieces.
As an example of the programmatic element at work in the Froberger, Suite XXVII suggests the title of the Aeolus disc, Le Passaage du Rhin. The first number in the suite is entitled Allemande, faite en passant le Rhin dans une barque en grand péril (“Allemande, made while traversing the Rhine on a barque in great peril”). This is supposed to portray an incident that occurred to the much-traveled Froberger during a Rhine journey from Cologne to Mainz. Froberger accompanied the Count of Thurn and his entourage, one of whom, a portly court steward, took a header into the Rhine and had to be fished out by use of a long pole. In his allemande, Froberger paints the confused attempts to retrieve the floundering steward, as well as the prayers and lamentations that go up from his friends and colleagues on board the boat. In his notes to the recording, van Asperen avers that in such pieces Froberger not only wrote the first genuine program music but also initiated the use of Leitmotifs, since he used recurring musical figures to convey “actions or objects” in the course of his tone painting. Well, perhaps. There are repeated figures certainly that may represent some extramusical idea Froberger wants to convey. Maybe if you’re imaginative enough, you can “see” the confusion on deck and in the water and hear the agitated prayers of the observers. If so, please let me know what you’re smoking.
The truth of the matter, of course, is that if a listener weren’t informed of Froberger’s extramusical intentions, he or she would just think that all we have here is the usual Baroque keyboard suite, a succession of stylized dances. So don’t expect the pictorialism of Berlioz or even Biber. To be sure, we can credit a certain emotional appropriateness to some of the pieces according to their titles. Suite XII, for example, commences with Lamento sopra la dolorosa perdita della Real Maestà di Ferdinand IV, Ré de Romani etc. (“Lament over the sad passing of His Royal Majesty Ferdinand IV, King of the Romans, etc.”), a bittersweet ruminative piece with a properly elegiac air. Even more somber is Suite XX, whose opening number is titled Médiation, faite sur ma mort future, laquelle sa joue lentement avec discrétion (“Meditation over my future death, which is to be played slowly, with discretion”). Here, the halting rhythm, the odd dissonances and suspensions, the whole strangely unmelodic musical argument speaks of the sober nature of Froberger’s subject (even if the piece is followed by a lively capering gigue).
As van Asperen points out, Froberger’s plan in these works, following the initial programmatic piece in each suite, is to follow with the usual dance movements but to treat them as sorts of “variations” on the opening piece. About Suite XXVII, van Asperen writes, The Rhine Suite is obliged, as almost always in Froberger, to the principle of the variation suite: gigue and courante show many transformations of the material of the Allemande in new light, using new possibilities provided by the altered meter. The intimate sarabande indeed initially goes its own way, yet then adopts the harmonic scheme of the Allemande in the second section. . . .” Surely, whatever you make of the programmatic elements in Froberger’s music, this carefully integrated approach to the keyboard suite is a significant feature of his work and suggests why he was such a great influence on later North German composers, including Pachelbel, Bach, and Handel, as well as on Louis Couperin and, by extension, the French clavicinistes who followed. This is music that repays careful attention, and with Bob van Asperen as your knowledgeable and committed guide, the importance of this composer is easy to grasp. For even greater authenticity, van Asperen plays a wonderful-sounding harpsichord of Froberger’s own day, a 1640 Ruckers model.
The MSR disc is clearly meant to showcase the talents individually and collectively of the members of Les Grâces: (Jennifer Paulino, soprano; Annette Bauer, recorder; Rebekah Ahrendt, viola da gamba; and Jonathan Rhodes Lee, harpsichord), but I’m not sure there is a great deal of value in giving us bits of larger works of Marais and Duphly. It might have been a better to include the entire Marais suite and throw in a harpsichord suite by Rameau or his like. That said, the charming cantatas by Bernier and Montéclair are welcome and very nicely sung by Jennifer Paulino, whose voice is more dulcet than many a French soprano I’ve heard. She’s just as expressive as many a French singer too. I find, however, that the instrumental support is just a bit subdued, and this is especially true of the work of recorder player Annette Bauer, for whom the recorder is maybe a second instrument after, surprisingly enough, the sitar. (Bauer studied historical performance practice at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, classical Indian music at Ali Akbar College of Music, a rather unusual musical education.) I can certainly imagine, and have heard, livelier renditions of Couperin’s Neuvième concert.
I give this disc a qualified recommendation, then; if you don’t mind mixed media and the fragmentary nature of some of the instrumental offerings,  Les Grâces Françoises does provide a useful and entertaining entrée to the music of Bernier and Montéclair that might just lead you on to continued explorations of their work. A nicely intimate recording set down at Berkeley is a further incentive, if the program appeals.
—Lee Passarella

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