This curious little disc takes up a genre that's rarely enough performed in itself: the secular French solo cantata of the Baroque. This was modeled on the early Italian cantata, overlaid with various obscure rules of French declamation rather than breathing the new stylistic winds coming from Italy. It was also toned down technically to a point where amateur singers could perform the music. The story of Orpheus in the underworld was as popular in France as it was in Italy, but, as you will hear on this disc, other moods than grand passion were permissible in its treatment. Tenor Cyril Auvity basically lets the music speak for itself, telling us very little about it in the booklet. (He does, however, find room for a jeremiad against those who disagree with his conception of the "haute-contre" voice; music like this has been sung by countertenors, but Auvity's is a normal tenor pushed to its highest register.) There are two Orpheus cantatas on the program, one by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault and the other by Rameau. Between and surrounding them are instrumental movements by François Couperin and some single-movement vocal pieces. It's not clear exactly what these are; they're not cantatas as the form is generally defined, and the booklet does nothing to inform the listener (one of the composers is identified simply as Monsieur D.S., with no further explanation). They generally fit in with the theme of doomed passion, however, and the intent seems to have been to create a varied program along the lines an audience of the eighteenth century would have recognized. Musically, it all works beautifully. Auvity, working with the curiously spelled historical-instrument ensemble L'yriade, delivers gorgeous, deliberate performances that showcase his skills even without taking on the brutal ornaments of the Italian cantata style. The short songs are affecting, but the most fun of all is the contrast between the two Orphée cantatas. The one by Clérambault treats the story in the conventional way, with a magnificently sad lament for Orpheus (track 9) capable of standing with Monteverdi's better known example of the genre. The cantata by Rameau is completely different. The action manages to turn the story into something of an action-packed situation comedy, complete with a chirpy moralistic final air ("Many a man today would be happy/Had he not desired his happiness too soon"). This is by no means the most preposterous dramatic conception in French Baroque vocal music, which could hang pretty much anything on the old myths. Auvity brings enthusiasm as well as good technical equipment to these pieces, and the contrast delightfully comes alive. The church-recorded sound, hollow rather than intimate, is not up to the quality of the performances in general, but this will be an offbeat find even for the serious Baroque fan. All texts appear in the booklet in French and English.
Rameau, Clérambault: Orphée Review
by James Manheim