Viola da gamba – Marc-Antoine Charpentier

May 23, 2009

Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Les Plaisirs de Versailles: sonata a huit, Idylle sur le retour de la sante du Roi. Les Folies Francoises, Patrick Cohen-Akenine, dir. DVD, Armide Classics, 85mins approx.

Pinchgut Opera’s production late last year of Charpentier’s Dave & Johnno far exceeded all expectations. I confess to not knowing too much at all about Charpentier beforehand, beyond his use of treble viols in church music and a short vigorous operatic work, Acteon. His lack of purely instrumental music in quantity makes him less of a household name among gamba players. This stage production, with its wonderful word-painting from the bass strings – subtle gamba vs strident basse de violon – underlining the action on stage, was an absolute delight. Given that particular instruments wouldn’t have been specified in the score for particular dramatic moments, it was amazing to see the use of bass string sound used in this way.

I followed up this performance with ready access to scores on the internet of Acteon and Les Plaisirs de Versailles. They added enormously to impressions gained aurally from the opera experience, providing clear insights into his use of instrumentation and harmonic style, compared with other composers of Paris and Versailles of the time – the better known Marais and Couperin in particular.

This DVD with the rather misleading title of Les Plaisirs de Versailles (borrowed from the title of one of Charpentier’s works not featured on the DVD) gives us live concert performances at Versailles Royal Opera of two works, one instrumental and one vocal.

The eight instruments of the Sonate – a highly unusual combination but entirely consistent for the time, considering his “off-site” musical environment in Paris away from Versailles – are two violins, two flutes, bass viol, basse de violon, theorbo and harpsichord.  Think a Telemann sonate a quattuor with twice the forces. The many short movements allow for ‘solos’ of violins, flutes and bass strings, with conversations between both the relevant instruments. There is surprising delicacy and bon gout involved here nothwithstanding the forces – the outcome is neither orchestral nor particularly intimate chamber music.

The program of the vocal work will be largely familiar to gamba players who have encountered the genre piece of Marin Marais describing (in lurid and excruiating detail) the surgery on the King and his recovery. Charpentier’s work is one of those typically baroque booming celebratory pieces. If I was more of a singer and less of a gamba player, then I guess I’d find it more interesting than the Sonate.

The viol player is by the way Christine Plubeau and at this time it must be one of the few gamba performances on DVD available.

In the DVD series also is Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Un automne musical a Versailles.

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