Prom Chamber Music 1: 23rd July 2001

Concerts royaux – quatrieme concert
“Le Rossignol en amour”
Pan et Syrinx
Rossignols amoureux
Pieces et clavecin en concerts – premier concert

Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Nancy Hadden (flute)
Alison Bury (violin)
Erin Headley (viola da gamba)
Lucy Carolan (harpsichord)

Reviewed by: Duncan Hadfield

Reviewed: 23 July, 2001
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

That a pastoral theme is integral to this year’s Proms was certainly reflected in the first of the eight Monday lunchtime recitals in the magnificent setting of the V & A’s Lecture Theatre in Kensington. The previous Saturday (July 21) the Royal Albert Hall had witnessed Handel’s setting of Milton and Jennens, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (reviewed for Classical Source by Nick Breckenfield). This chamber fare switched to 18th-century splendour from across the channel for three of Handel’s slightly younger Gallic contemporaries.

Viewed from the wide perspective of the 21st-century’s beginning, musical developments at the divide of the 17th- and 18th-centuries can be seen to have given birth to the ’modern’ world of music. The infinite musical variety generated by the invention of opera and its related forms, and the increased importance and vitality of solo and ensemble forms, spawned a vast and constantly renewing repertory. Operatic spin-offs were in evidence in this compact yet intriguing recital, unveiled through the prism of the French Enlightenment.

Supported by the almost omniscient patronage of Louis XIV, it was Francois Couperin (1668-1733) who seemed to be the King’s chosen composer to take over the legacy of Jean-Baptiste Lully. Between 1684 and 1701, Louis had an inner apartment constructed at Versailles, where only members of his family and a few distinguished guests attended him; it was here that he also took pleasure in the private concerts organised for him and his most intimate circle. It was for one of those rarefied soirees that Couperin composed his Concerts Royaux – the fourth of these opened this Proms recital in ravishing style.

Nancy Hadden, Erin Headley and Lucy Carolan began playing together as postgraduate students in America before coming to London some twenty years ago. Joined here by Alison Bury (sometime leader of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment), a generation of scholarship and chamber rapport was immediately in evidence in this beautifully balanced account of Couperin’s multi-styled suite.

Contemporaneous with Couperin is the no less accomplished figure of Michel Pignolet de Monteclair (1667-1737) who possessed an equal command of vocal and chamber music idioms. This was handsomely demonstrated when the instrumental quartet were joined by the mellifluous timbres of young soprano Carolyn Sampson for Monteclair’s cantata Pan et Syrinx, a frothy concoction of recitatives and airs in which the satyr’s attempts to woo his nymph were exotically and stylishly rendered.

Younger than Couperin or Monteclair, France’s next great 18th-century creator was Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) – the first of his Pieces de clavecin en concerts of 1741, cast in three sections, ended proceedings at the V & A. Interesting here was Rameau’s greater freedom of expression, an almost proto-classical style with less ornate elaboration. Once again a superbly prepared realisation ensued, full of wit, grace and buoyant rapport.

This excellent concert was completed by a twinning of Rameau’s evocation of amorous nightingales – beautifully sung and articulated by Sampson – and Couperin’s solo-flute evocation of the same bird’s song, sumptuously played by Hadden. The pastoral theme was nobly enunciated.

Arriving at the V & A ten minutes before the concert’s start to find an already fairly full auditorium (the event was sold out), I plonked myself on a vacant front row and was glad I did – I could have been the ’Sun King’ himself in private audience with expert musicians a mere grateful handshake away!

This was a tremendously invigorating and rewarding hour, yet if I have a cavil it’s with the lack of programme documentation and notes, not the case with the RAH Proms. Radio 3 announcer Stephanie Hughes’s somewhat cursory and glib introductions did not do justice to either these ’Titans of the High Baroque’, or to the ladies executing their music with reciprocal mastery.

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