LES AMOURS DE MAI: LOVE SONGS IN THE AGE OF RONSARD • Julianne Baird (sop); Robert Mealy (vn); Parthenia (period instruments) • MSR 1304 (70:15)
Music of BASSANO, BONNET, CASTRO, COSTE, COSTELEY, GOUDIMEL, CLAUDE LE JEUNE, EUSTACHE DU CAURROY, JULIO SEGNI DA MODENA, PEVERNAGE, PRAETORIUS, REGNARD, and ANON
Here is a delightful collection of mostly French vocal and instrumental music from the second half of the 16th century, a bloody, turbulent period in French history that spawned a great number of important poets and musicians, among them Pierre de Ronsard (1524–85), the father of modern French poetry. Ronsard and his contemporary Jean-Antoine de Baïf (1532–89) were the driving forces behind a clandestine organization called L’Académie de musique et de poésie, founded in Paris in 1570. Like the Florentine Camerata of roughly the same period, the group’s goal was to “re-create the music of the ancients,” and to this end they gave weekly concerts that were frequented for a time by both King Charles IX (of St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre infamy) and his successor, Henri III. It’s ironic that the leading composer of the Académie was the protestant Claude le Jeune—one wonders if Charles had anything good to say about Claude’s music. Another staunch protestant, Claude Goudimel, who perished during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, frequently set Ronsard’s poetry to music—two of his songs are included here. Other composers attracted to Ronsard’s poetry include the Irishman Guillaume Costeley, the Fleming Jean de Castro, and the Frenchman François Regnard (one song each). It’s a fascinating period in French musical history that witnessed two converging trends: the waning internationalism of the late Renaissance and the emergence of a distinct national style. Robert Mealy’s excellent notes go into great detail about all this, but the music can certainly be enjoyed on its own merit without knowledge of the historical background.
For many listeners, the Praetorius dances will be most familiar—included here no doubt for their French stylistic borrowings, although Praetorius probably never set foot in France. For me, the most important piece is Costeley’s exquisite Mignonne, allons voir si la rose, first recorded, if I’m not mistaken, by the Deller Consort in the mid 60s. Here it is performed, as are all the vocal numbers, as a vocal solo accompanied by three or four viols. Other highlights include de Castro’s moving lament Ah! Je meurs, the three delicious songs of André Pevernage (a pleasant discovery), and the Bassano divisions on Suzanne un jour. The latter is an ideal showcase for Julianne Baird’s legendary coloratura. Of the instrumental numbers, I most enjoyed the Praetorius, the anonymous basse dance pieces, and the five fantasies on Une Jeunne fillette by du Caurroy.
Julianne Baird is without question the star of this CD. Besides being a noted scholar on the history and art of singing (her book Introduction to the Art of Singing sits proudly on my shelf), she is one of the most recorded early-music artists around. I was surprised to read in the liner notes that Baird has more than 125 records to her credit, making her one of the world’s 10 most recorded classical artists. The voice has darkened somewhat since her early recordings with the Waverly Consort, but it’s still beautifully controlled and expressive, with a judicious amount of vibrato. And, as hinted above, she negotiates the coloratura in the Bassano like nobody’s business.
The viol consort Parthenia (Rosamund Morley, treble; Lawrence Lipnik, tenor; Beverly Au and Lisa Terry, bass) has been around for quite a while, too—more than 20 years. Their unanimity and grasp of the style are not unlike that of a great string quartet playing Mozart or Beethoven. Within the limits of the instrumentation, the accompaniments are exemplary, although the sound of four viols got to be a bit monotonous after a while. The addition of a lute or keyboard would have been a simple solution to this. It was somewhat harder to judge the contribution of violinist Robert Mealy, as his participation on individual numbers is not spelled out in the booklet. Obviously, he provides the upper voice in the five-part numbers—the Praetorius, for example—but his sound blends so well with the viols that you’re not usually aware that a violin is carrying the tune. Nicely done recording, with a believable soundstage and front-to-back perspective between singer and instrumentalists. Recommended.