Sunday, July 18, 2010

Music review: Musical piety, vocal purity make for absorbing concert of French Baroque

Louis XIV,‭ ‬king of France‭ ‬and‭ ‬Navarre‭ (‬1638-1715‭)‬.


By Greg‭ ‬Stepanich


In the days when Louis XIV was an actual presence and not‭ ‬merely‭ ‬the name of a favorite rococo interior‭ ‬design fashion,‭ ‬the faithful gathered in churches for‭ ‬communion with the Almighty but also‭ ‬for‭ ‬music,‭ ‬for the sound of a pure,‭ ‬unclouded voice ascending into the severe angles of a sacred space.

That very same experience,‭ ‬without the king,‭ ‬was that of an audience Saturday night at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale,‭ ‬as two sopranos and an organist presented an hour of early‭ ‬18th-century devotional music by two major French composers.‭ ‬This concert‭ (‬called‭ ‬The Court of the Sun King:‭ ‬Music From Versailles‭)‬,‭ ‬one in a series of summer events from Miami‭’‬s Seraphic Fire chorus,‭ ‬offered intensity and beauty in equal measure.

Sopranos Kathryn Mueller and Rebecca Duren,‭ ‬accompanied by Seraphic Fire founder Patrick Dupré Quigley at the‭ ‬petit orgue,‭ ‬performed four motets by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault and the three‭ ‬Leçons de Ténèbre of François Couperin.‭ ‬This is unadorned music despite its ornaments,‭ ‬a kind of Baroque style that has‭ ‬greater affinity with the plain sources of the Catholic liturgy than it does the powdered wigs of Versailles.

Mueller‭ (at right) and‭ ‬Duren,‭ ‬both members of Seraphic Fire,‭ ‬have‭ ‬similar voices that are admirably suited for Baroque music.‭ ‬There is a clear,‭ ‬open‭ ‬quality‭ ‬to both of these singers‭’‬ instruments‭ ‬that is‭ ‬particularly‭ ‬impressive in the upper registers,‭ ‬where nary a vibrato wobble or sign of strain was heard.‭ ‬Mueller‭’‬s voice is slightly larger,‭ ‬rounder and more powerful than Duren‭’‬s,‭ ‬but both women sang‭ ‬beautifully,‭ ‬and‭ ‬demonstrated‭ ‬first-rate diction‭ ‬and‭ ‬high musical intelligence as well.‭

The program was sung without intermission,‭ ‬and began‭ ‬with‭ ‬the four Clérambault motets,‭ ‬the first in honor of the king‭ (‬which by‭ ‬1733,‭ ‬when these motets were published,‭ ‬was Louis XV‭)‬,‭ ‬and the other three for‭ ‬the‭ ‬Virgin,‭ ‬Christmas,‭ ‬and Holy Tuesday.‭ ‬Clérambault‭’‬s style is very much of its time,‭ ‬though he also writes with some attractive variety,‭ ‬and‭ ‬his‭ ‬basic‭ ‬harmonic layout is less relentless than that of Couperin,‭ ‬which‭ ‬might have‭ ‬something to do with his being the‭ ‬younger‭ ‬man.

Duren‭’‬s ability to sing with a smoothness of line was readily apparent in the‭ ‬Motet de la Sainte‭ ‬Vierge‭ (‬one of several Clérambault composed‭)‬,‭ ‬and Mueller‭’‬s ease‭ ‬in‭ ‬the‭ ‬higher reaches of her voice was much in evidence during the‭ ‬Motet pour le jour de Noël.‭ ‬Both sopranos could be heard‭ ‬trading‭ ‬between‭ ‬higher‭ ‬and lower parts when‭ ‬singing together,‭ ‬with scarcely a noticeable difference,‭ ‬and‭ ‬during the‭ ‬Motet pour le Mardy de la Quinquagezime,‭ ‬they blended‭ ‬with exemplary loveliness at‭ ‬the‭ ‬words beginning‭ ‬Domine est salus.

Quigley,‭ ‬as always,‭ ‬made an expert accompanist,‭ ‬supporting‭ ‬and following his singers,‭ ‬and during the Christmas motet showing‭ ‬his usual engagement with the music by bobbing along in rhythm‭ ‬to the joyous text and music.

The three Tenebrae lessons of Couperin,‭ ‬written for Holy Wednesday in‭ ‬1714,‭ ‬are with his books of keyboard‭ ‬Ordres his most celebrated works,‭ ‬and‭ ‬they are‭ ‬good examples of the vividness of Couperin‭’‬s musical language.‭ ‬Each of the initial‭ ‬melismatic‭ ‬settings of the letters‭ ‬of the Hebrew alphabet‭ ‬set a fresh color for the verses to follow,‭ ‬and the singers‭ ‬and‭ ‬Quigley were careful to bring it out.

This is demanding‭ ‬listening,‭ ‬with its spare‭ ‬performing forces and deeply pious focus adding to the‭ ‬challenge of its particular‭ ‬aural‭ ‬archaisms,‭ ‬but it repaid‭ ‬the‭ ‬effort‭ ‬with a‭ ‬shared concentration‭ ‬that‭ ‬was most noticeable during the interior pauses‭ ‬and‭ ‬the‭ ‬breaks‭ ‬between‭ ‬the separate lessons.‭ ‬Again,‭ ‬the crystalline clarity of the women‭’‬s voices was paramount,‭ ‬with Mueller showing this effectively in the long held note on the words‭ ‬ejus gementes in the‭ ‬Daleth section of the first lesson.

Duren‭’‬s purity of tone and trilling skill gave polish and nobility to the second lesson,‭ ‬and in the third,‭ ‬the climbing,‭ ‬sweetly clashing notes of both singers added a‭ ‬yearning‭ ‬quality that was quite attractive.‭ ‬At the end,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬Mueller and Duren (at right) had to leap into‭ ‬the upper reaches for a key‭ ‬passage,‭ ‬and both handled it with plenty of muscle to spare.

This‭ ‬was in some ways music‭ ‬only‭ ‬for the‭ ‬connoisseur,‭ ‬but the large audience at All Saints was deeply attentive throughout and amply appreciative at the close.‭ ‬Seraphic Fire and other area musical‭ ‬organizations have had a good run in the past year or so with explorations of the Baroque repertoire,‭ ‬and‭ ‬this‭ ‬visit to the‭ ‬world of French monarchism at its‭ ‬height‭ ‬marks another fine event in that series.

This program will be repeated this afternoon at Miami Beach Community Church in Miami Beach.‭ ‬The concert begins at‭ ‬4‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Tickets are‭ ‬$30‭ ‬and are available at‭ ‬the door,‭ ‬through‭ ‬www.seraphicfire.org,‭ ‬or by calling‭ (‬888‭) ‬544-FIRE‭ (‬3473‭)‬.

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