Musica Maestrale review: Brilliance amid the darkness

Portland early music ensemble rekindles the late music of French Baroque composer Francois Couperin


In some quarters of our fair state, the name “coup”erin might be thought to evoke a new Peugeot convertible, or perhaps slang for a pigeon’s prison. Doubtless, the name is not on the top of the list at KGON, or even 89.9. We just don’t know much about Francois Couperin, a composer who, as a member of a prominent musical family, was a dominant figure in French music for the latter part of the 17th century. and into the 18th. But last Friday evening at Portland’s First Christian Church, ah…we were enveloped in the aura of Couperin’s brilliance.

Presented by Musica Maestrale, directed by Hideki Yamaya, and featuring two wonderful Portland sopranos, with the expert accompaniment of the theorbo and viola da gamba, this was a brilliant exposition of the later music of a great French Baroque composer.

Musica Maestrale played Couperin in Portland.

Musica Maestrale played Couperin in Portland.

They were a matched set, these two women. Sounding like womb-mates, the twinned voices of Catherine van der Salm and Arwen Myers were cloned air streams — soaring above the small but appreciative audience in the sanctuary.

Couperin’s Trois Lecons de Tenebrae (Three Lessons of Darkness) c. 1715, was his last great vocal work. Based on the piteous texts of Lamentations of Jeremiah, the tenebres are usually sung on the last three days of Holy week. Couperin composed six such lessons; only these first three survive.

The three lessons are each divided into vignettes (5, 4, 5), each vignette beginning with a melisma intoned on one letter of the Hebrew alphabet (14 out of the 22, Alef through Nun). These melismas are daunting, due to the high vocal range and necessity for extreme breath management. But Myers and van der Salm made them sound easy. The first two lessons were solo with continuo, sung by Ms. van der Salm and Ms. Myers respectively. The final lesson, a duet, is one of the great Baroque vocal works.

Importantly, the women carefully limned the text as well as the music. The jeremiads are all about sadness, melancholy, hair-tearing, that kind of thing. One could watch Ms. van der Salm and Ms. Myers, and know, even without listening, what they were singing about.

Much of the vocal music is derived from the many suites (“ordres”) for harpsichord that constitute the composer’s greatest output. Couperin composed highly ornamented melodies, with playful dialogue between upper and lower register. The highly ornamented melodies of the Tenebres lessons were perfectly illustrated by the sinuous and silvery voices of Myers and van der Salm.

Just as trenchant were their partners, Mr. Yamaya and Max A. Fuller, playing respectively theorbo and viola da gamba. They easily covered all demands of accompaniment and then some. This was great artistry.

The only disappointments at the concert were completely outside the realm of performance itself. A few latecomers were allowed to enter the hall during one of the intimate soft duets — a rude clamor that should have been avoided. The program itself started ten minutes late, for reasons unknown.

One added layer of rendition that could have been considered: there’s no question that Latin in 17th C. France was sung with a strong French accent. For example, more nasal in the “n” consonants, and a completely different sound for the “oo” [u vowel.] The women’s singing was so consummately professional that I’m certain they could try this tack at another opportunity and infuse a different hue into the vocal picture. “I have been disappointed to find recordings of extraordinary quality in faultlessly achieved Roman Latin,” writes the author of Singing in Latin, Harold Copeman. “To my ear this style takes away from the character of the French music, even where the nominally Italian vowels still have a strong Gallic tinge.”

Couperin’s musical reign was nearly contemporaneous with that of King Louis XIV, the “Sun-king” — the absolute monarch whose royal tenure was the longest in European history. The concomitant flourishing of the Court at Versailles may have facilitated the arts (and in particular the court composers) in being more acquainted with international styles, but also having the wherewithal and stimulus for more opportunity to compose.

The Tenebrae Lessons were preceded by two shorter vocal pieces — mini-Couperin — a tombeau, for gamba and theorbo, by his contemporary, Marin Marais, and Couperin’s own dance-like “Les Sylvans.” The tombeau provided a splendid exhibition of Yamaya and Fuller’s instrumental virtuosity.

A few of these streamlined vocal lines may still be echoing in the ether; we may not know or remember much about Couperin here and now, but if you step very quietly into the dark of the First Christian Church one late evening, and listen patiently, you might hear his music ringing still.

Portland choral director Bruce Browne led Portland Symphonic Choir and Portland State University choral programs for many years. Daryl Browne began her music career as a flutist, pianist and music theorist. She completed her elementary 32-year classroom and music teaching career and now makes music around the Northwest.

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