Italian Academy, May 17, 2018
Earlier in the year, there was some concern about whether this concert would actually take place. Andrew Appel, the founder and leader of the Four Nations Ensemble, had slipped during our icy winter and suffered a serious injury. As he posted to his Facebook friends after undergoing an hours-long operation, he would have to wear a neck brace for months and was uncertain how long his recovery would take. It was with a sense of jubilation, therefore, that his friends read of his steady improvement and his ultimate return to the concert stage. Andy—who will perform in the Capriccio Baroque series on July 15, 2018, along with cellist Loretta O’Sullivan and baroque dancer Paige Whitley-Bauguess—has long been a key figure in the New York early-music scene. I first heard him and the Four Nations in the late 1980s and have savored many of his superb concerts over the last three decades. His triumph over adversity on this night, quite apart from the delectable musical fare offered up, was in itself a moving, life-affirming event.
Although no solo harpsichord works had been programmed, Andy decided to start off the concert by sitting at the harpsichord, a double-manual by Willard Martin, and playing the wistful rondeau theme from François Couperin’s “Les Bergeries” (Sixième Ordre), which he felt encapsulated in music the aesthetic of the fête galante, the thematic starting point of the entire program
Held in the Renaissance ballroom of the Italian Academy (the old Casa Italiana of Columbia University), the concert was sponsored by the Aspect Foundation for Music and Arts and included a lecture by the art historian Mary Tavener Holmes, who discussed the fête galante genre in painting. The phrase refers to those outdoor scenes—so familiar to us from paintings by Watteau, Fragonard, Lancret, and others—in which gallants and their ladies have left the court for a bucolic afternoon, often surrounded by sky-reaching canopies of abounding verdure. And what are these beautifully attired people doing? Well, nothing really. Or at least the paintings don’t tell much of a story or carry any kind of moral. This motif would fade in popularity in the late 18th century (that incident of civil unrest in 1789 no doubt played a part in its demise), with painters like David coming to the fore, presenting neoclassical themes that often highlighted a critical moment selected from antiquity and that served as an emblem of a particular ethical crisis or historical turning point.
The concert proper—with instrumentalists Kathie Stewart (traverso), Olivier Brault (violin), Adam Cockerham (theorbo), and Jaap ter Linden (cello and gamba)—began with Leclair’s Second Musical Recreation, a suite filled with charming pieces that, in their delightful frivolity, seemed perfect musical counterparts to the paintings discussed beforehand.
Then came a special treat: Clérambault’s cantata L’Isle de Délos, featuring the glorious Sherezade Panthaki. By now, her reputation as one of today’s truly thrilling sopranos performing 18th-century repertoire has extended across the United States and into Europe, and I jump at any chance to hear her. French baroque music, of course, has its own rules and pitfalls, and a singer who soars in Bach—as she always does—may stumble in Rameau. Suffice it to say that there was no stumbling here, only perfection, with elegant phrasing that induced a luscious frisson, gracefully executed ornaments, and a ravishing tone that made a libretto superfluous—though I would have liked one anyway.
A Trio in G Minor for flute, violin, and cello by François Devienne opened the second half and brought us into the early classical period as a parallel to the stylistic shift from Watteau to David. Jaap ter Linden, one of the modern giants of the gamba (whom I was overjoyed to hear live for the first time), switched to cello for this, and returned to the viol for the final piece, Telemann’s Paris Quartet No. 5, which showed how the musical fête galante style traveled into Germany and elsewhere in Europe, along with comparable architectural and artistic Gallicisms of the period.
The musicians played with their customary mastery and panache, and Andy Appel led the ensemble with sensitivity, flexibility, and complete control. It was a night to relish.