Masques lets French masters speak once more

Early Music Now's guests displayed a perfect understanding of Rameau et al. and presented a new, imaginative work.

By - Feb 17th, 2013 01:17 pm

Early music ensemble Masques hails from Montreal, and has an uncanny understanding of early- and mid-18th century French composers.

“There can be no fairer ambition than to excel in talk; to be affable, gay, ready, clear and welcome”…

Robert Louis Stevenson was talking about the value of a good conversation, but his opinion could also describe the music of J-P Rameau and his contemporaries. The stuff is so damned conversational. Leave the mysticism to H.I.F Biber, the counterpoints to Henry  Purcell and the pyrotechnics to Pietro Locatelli.  The wit and charm of an engaging chat belongs to the early and mid-18th century French masters.

Montreal-based ensemble Masques (Tuomo Suni, Kathleen Kajioka, Christina Zacharias, violins; Margaret Little, viola; Mélisande Corriveau, cello; Benôit Vanden Bemden, violone; Olivier Fortin, harpsichord & direction), guest of Early Music Now at the venerable St. Paul’s Church, understands this well. Their success with this music, in general and at their Milwaukee concert, comes not from their chops (more than ample), not from their spot-on ensemble playing (sharper than a new razor), but because they know how this music talks. More importantly, they can speak its language too, able to recreate the fun and wisdom of that good conversation.


Portrait of J-P Rameau, c. 1728, attributed to Joseph Aved, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon. Public domain via Wikipedia Commons.

How did Masques do this? Certainly gut strings helped. A modern steel string sounds like steel, no getting around it. A gut string, touched with intelligence and taste, with the added advantage of a light baroque bow, sounds like a voice – sometimes a singing voice, but in the case of the music played last night (and this is the important thing) a talking voice. To be sure, they made their strings sing. But with this sort of music, that is only half of what makes it tick. They also made their gut strings, and the resultant phrases and gestures inherent in the music, speak.

Half of the program was devoted to the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau, specifically, his Concert in Sextuor Nos. 1, 3 and 6. What exactly are these pieces? Certainly this music calls for five players plus continuo, in this case harpsichord and violone. But are these works concerto grossi, are they dance suites, are they programmatic, are they solo concerti? The happy answer to these queries – and a large part of what makes this music so alluring – is that they are all of these things. Sometime Rameau calls for virtuosic solo riffs from the players, sometimes he goes to the barnyard to fetch some chicken sounds (nothing clucks better than a baroque violin) sometimes the music falls into chromatic pathways as if to show off that the composer is a theorist as well as an entertainer. These pieces were the whole package. When you finally pin down what’s going on, the music starts to cluck like a chicken or begins to travel to the East for  some faux-Egyptian sounds. Keeps you on your toes.

New music is always welcome at EMN concerts. This time it was the United States premiere of “Archipiélago” by the German-born Canadian composer, Michael Oesterle. It didn’t take long for the composer to lay his cards out on the table. The first two notes of the piece were, if memory serves, a broken octave in the harpsichord.  I took this as a sign that there would be lots of material on the piece that would be easy to glom onto. That broken octave morphed into an ostinato that supported all sorts of wonderful things: sounds of the sea, aching suspensions (again, nothing does suspensions better than gut strings), motor-rhythms that propelled the music forward into outbursts of tonal lyricism. This was imaginative, accessible writing. And to top it all off, the last movement of this four movement piece ended with a viola solo. Thank you!

Why do we not hear more music of Jean-Joseph Cassanea de Mondonville and Michel Corrette? A violin sonata, beautifully played, showed Corrette to be more that a composer of charming duets for beginning string players. This he did very well, but he could also write large-scale violin sonatas that call for virtuosity and endurance.

The concert was preceded by an amuse-bouche, an informative and witty lecture by Professor Gabrielle Verdier of UWM’s French department. After an overview of 17th and 18th century French culture, she described how the clever intrigues of Madame de Pompadour helped set up an environment that allowed music to flourish and prosper, and thereby had an important role in bringing the music of the titled mistress of Louis XV to Milwaukee and St. Paul’s Church.

Next up for Early Music Now: Hargis & O’Dette, March 16.

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