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Briefly Noted: New from Les Arts Florissants

available at Amazon
Music for Queen Caroline (Handel), Les Arts Florissants, W. Christie

(released on January 13, 2015)
AF004 | 72'17"

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Monteverdi, Madrigals, Vol. 2, Les Arts Florissants, P. Agnew

(released on November 11, 2014)
AF003 | 74'03"

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Le Jardin de Monsieur Rameau (Campra, Montéclair, Rameau, Dauvergne, Gluck), Les Arts Florissants, W. Christie

(released on April 1, 2014)
AF002 | 81'03"
William Christie and Les Arts Florissants inaugurated a private recording label in 2013, followed by two releases last year and one more this month. The most recent disc is devoted to music that George Frideric Handel composed for official events honoring Caroline of Ansbach, the wife of King George II and a close friend and supporter of the composer. Two shorter pieces begin the disc, the "Caroline" Te Deum, performed for Caroline's arrival in England in 1714 as Princess of Wales (although composed for an earlier occasion), and one of the choral anthems, The King Shall Rejoice, composed for the coronation of George II and Queen Caroline at Westminster Abbey in 1727. Neither of these pieces is all that interesting, not helped by undistinguished performances, with the choir sounding less than optimal in terms of intonation and tone quality, perhaps not helped by the way the singers were miked. Solo performances here, featuring a tenor and countertenor, are not noteworthy either.

The release is of value principally because of the major work featured on it, the substantial funeral anthem The Ways of Zion Do Mourn, composed for Caroline's funeral at Westminster Abbey in 1737 -- she died unexpectedly at age 54, to the great sadness of the public who held her in high esteem. This extraordinary piece, three-quarters of an hour in length, quotes some German chorale melodies: Queen Caroline, like Handel, was raised as a Lutheran, and indeed did not marry the Austrian archduke who became Emperor Charles VI because she refused to convert to Catholicism. It is a gorgeous, mostly choral piece, not unknown on disc (John Eliot Gardiner, among others, has recorded it) but basically unknown to my ears, and well worth discovering. The title section has a devastating sadness, which speaks volumes of the composer's personal connection with and regret for its dedicatee: with its weaving in of the chorale melody Herr Jesus Christ, ich weiss gar wohl and extended harmonic vagaries it often sounds more like Bach than the more cosmopolitan Handel. In its other sections the piece also incorporates other music, some in a lovely and mostly unaccompanied section extolling the queen's virtues, here with limpid solo voices from the chorus, sort of like a survey of historical music as a tribute to Caroline's musical background and patronage.

Thanks to the phenomenon of Internet concert streaming, we have followed a series of concerts devoted to Monteverdi's books of madrigals presented by members of Les Arts Florissants at the Cité de la Musique in Paris over the past couple years. Selections from these concerts, directed by Paul Agnew and recorded live, are being released in three volumes, with the second installment (Books 4-6, from the composer's time in Mantua) released first for whatever reason. The remaining volumes, focused on Cremona (Books 1-3) and Venice (Books 7 and 8), will follow this year and next. This is music to be relished, tracing the historical development of compositional style from the prima pratica into the seconda pratica, as the Renaissance yielded to the Baroque. There are a few good Monteverdi madrigal cycles already -- by Concerto Italiano and Marco Longhini's Delitiæ Musicæ, among others -- and complete ones, which this is not. Still, the performances are at a consistently high level, with beautiful voices and instrumental contributions (including beautiful theorbo from Thomas Dunford in the Lamento di Arianna), although I will reserve my final judgment until I have heard the complete set. A number of complementary videos related to this recording project can be accessed online.

The specialty of Les Arts Florissants remains the French Baroque, and this was the focus of the second release on the group's new label early last year. Derived from a concert created in 2013 at the ensemble's base in Caen, it features the young singers of Christie's Jardin des Voix program, in a program crafted (by Paul Agnew) for the Rameau anniversary last year. It opens with Montéclair's opera Jephté, the wildly successful work that launched Rameau on his mid-career shift into opera composition, as well as music by other composers who influenced Rameau. The most delightful curiosity is two exquisite canons from Rameau's Traité de l'harmonie, the music theory treatise that brought Rameau to national attention in France (along with a reputation for pedantry that he fought all his life to shake). The ear-bending chromaticism of the canon at the fifth Ah! Loin de rire, pleurons almost makes Gesualdo sound tame, and Réveillez-vous, dormeur sans fin, a canon at the unison, is enlivened by a hilarious bugle motif passed around the voices.

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