Huggett and colleagues charm with music of the French Baroque

Mon May 06, 2019 at 11:10 am
Monica Huggett and colleagues performed Sunday at Corpus Christi Church for Music Before 1800.

Monica Huggett and colleagues performed Sunday at Corpus Christi Church for Music Before 1800.

It’s hard to miss with the French High Baroque. If you stick with the big names, at least.

And bigger names in that world than François Couperin, Jean-Marie Leclair, and Jean-Philippe Rameau would be hard to find. Their music epitomized what was captivating about the arts in their time and place: the wit, the intellectual fire, the tender sentiments, the social graces, the taste for the exotic, and yes, that touch of in-crowd clubbiness that humans seem to crave.

They composed flattering pieces about each other even as they schemed to get ahead. Several of those pieces graced the delightful program presented by Music Before 1800 Sunday afternoon at Corpus Christi Church in Morningside Heights, a New York neighborhood where les philosophes and their artistic brothers and sisters might have felt right at home.

The English-born, Oregon-based violinist Monica Huggett and the American harpsichordist Byron Schenkman led a rich-toned ensemble, which also included violinist Toma Iliev and viola da gamba player Joanna Blendulf, in a tasty assortment of works by the above-mentioned composers, plus one viol solo about Couperin by Antoine Forqueray.

Those composers and their supporters enjoyed debating so much that Couperin was almost a spoilsport when he composed the Sonata in G minor for two violins and continuo, La Paix du Parnasse (Peace on Parnassus), to settle the question of whether Italian influences were good or bad for French music.

Why not, Couperin proposed, enjoy the innovations and energy of Corelli, Vivaldi and the rest while also celebrating our more refined French idiom, typified by the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully?  In his sonata, he even labeled one violin “Lully” and the other “Corelli” and had them play together in a blended Franco-Italian style. To modern ears, the result just sounded like some nice Baroque music. And maybe that’s exactly what Couperin intended.

Virtuoso is an Italian word, and it was to Italy that Leclair went to become one on the violin. A generation younger than Couperin, Leclair encountered little resistance back home to the Vivaldian fire of his works for violin, including the remarkable duo sonatas without accompaniment, in which two virtuosi alternately support and try to top each other.

In Leclair’s F major Sonata, Op. 3, no. 4, Huggett and the Bulgarian-born Iliev were off and running at the opening gun, weaving a lively first movement out of interlocking scales and interludes in different meters. An Aria danced decorously amid sensuously swelling phrases. The players rendered the closing Gigue with considerable freedom, sensing together when to linger for emphasis and when to dash ahead.

While Huggett’s and Iliev’s fiddles cooled off backstage, harpsichordist Schenkman took a solo turn with two Rameau pieces: a Prelude in A minor, consisting of cadenza-like passages followed by a tumbling gigue, and the formidable Gavotte with Variations in A minor. Under Schenkman’s able fingers, the latter increased steadily in force and fury–relieved only by a funny little hopping dance on the instrument’s pizzicato-like buff stop–as its striking theme mounted on waves of scales and fast figurations to the all-stops-out finish.

Rameau the keyboard virtuoso then yielded to Rameau the Schumann-like musical portraitist, as Huggett, Schenkman, and gamba player Blendulf performed the Fifth Concert from his late collection Pièces de clavecin en concert. Each of the three movements paid tribute to one of the composer’s artist-friends: “Le Forqueray: Fugue” developed its craggy fugue subject fitfully, amid fantastic interludes; “La Cupis” depicted the dancer Marie Anne de Cupis, whose stamina must have been considerable, since her movement was by far the longest, richly developing its strings-harpsichord dialogue in an allegretto tempo; and “Le Marais” celebrated the great viol player Marin Marais with adept string-crossing, combining Bachian solidity with French grace.

One more musical tribute followed intermission, as harpsichordist Schenkman accompanied Blendulf in Forqueray’s “Le Couperin,” a viol solo in bold martelé strokes that made the old master sound like a starchy fellow indeed; but Blendulf was still able to find the curve of a phrase here and there.

As the youngest of this gaggle of composers, Leclair was perhaps best attuned to social change in the air. Certainly the rise of a cultivated middle class, hungry for music by celebrity composers they could play at home, inspired the suites he called “Recreations of music, in an easy style…” for two violins (or flutes) and continuo.

“Easy” only in comparison to Leclair’s virtuoso showpieces, his Second Recreation proved on Sunday to be a richly textured collection of six dance movements plus overture that put all four players on their mettle. Catchy themes were elaborated in rapid-fire imitation or smoothly harmonized in thirds. Dance rhythms skipped through the counterpoint or pulsed in rustic drones.

The dance movements climaxed in the multitudinous variations of a Chaconne on a chromatic theme, then closed with a country-style Tambourin, Huggett’s and Iliev’s fiddles dueling over the drumbeat of Blendulf’s staccato viol.

The concert’s one encore filled a gap: since the program had included a piece about Marin Marais, but nothing by him, the remedy was to play a Rondeau in C major from Marais’s Pièces en trio, a melodious piece with a touch of sentiment to send the audience off into the rainy, brainy streets of Morningside Heights.

Music Before 1800 will begins its 2019-20 season with the ensemble ACRONYM in “Cantica Nova: Discoveries from Uppsala’s Düben Manuscripts,” Oct. 6 at Corpus Christi Church.; 212-666-9266.

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