Today harmonia mundi launches an “imprint series” for Les Arts Florissants, an ensemble that focuses on the Baroque period founded in 1979 by conductor William Christie, who still leads the group. The “imprint” of the series is a suitably elegant (baroque?) monogram against which the names of the ensemble and the conductor are printed in modern type. The intention is that the series will not only release new recordings but also reissue major recordings from the past.
The first of the new recordings, released today, has the title Bien que l’amour…airs sérieux et à boire. It is based on recordings made in the Auditorium of the Conservatoire de Vincennes in December of 2013. The subtitle will probably be familiar to the scholarly. In the Grove Music Online entry for Air à boire, John H. Baron observed, “Between 1674 and 1745 over 250 collections, containing several thousand songs, were entitled Airs sérieux et à boire. In at least two collections ritornellos are added.” This new recording contains only twenty tracks, but one can probably rely on Christie to have made representative selections. Five vocalists participate in both solo and group singing: Emmanuelle de Negri (dessus), Anna Reinhold (bas-dessus), Cyril Auvity (haute-contre), Marc Mauillon (basse-taille), and Lisandro Abadie (basse). Ritornellos are provided by Florence Malgoire and Tami Troman, on violins, Myriam Rignol on gamba, and Thomas Dunford on theorbo, with Christie conducting from the harpsichord.
Christie’s intention was to focus on composers that flourished during the reign of Louis XIV. Twelve of the tracks are devoted to Michel Lambert, who served as maître de musique de la Chambre du Roi. The selections come from a 1689 anthology of 56 airs (along with four “dialogues” composed for court ballets by Jean-Baptiste Lully). The airs sérieux remind us that “bemoaning” (with apologies to the late Peter Cook) did not begin with Franz Schubert’s settings of poems by the German Romantics.
Nevertheless, Christie was wise not so serve up an entire album of melancholia, since the lover always seems inclined to “bemoan” even when his love is requited. With the drinking songs the pendulum swings to the other extreme. Indeed, Christie has put together a delightful selection of thoroughly uninhibited, if not downright raunchy, offerings. Pride of place must go to Marc-Antoine Charpentier for a series of interludes he wrote for a new production of Molière’s play Le Mariage forcé. Presumably, Charpentier was evoking the wedding guests, most of whom seem to have oiled themselves more than adequately before arriving at the ceremony. They embark on a boisterous account of singing about what they plan to sing. In the final lines they widen the scope of their mission by inviting animals (primarily dogs and cats) to join them This all provides the perfect break from the solemn pensiveness of the airs sérieux.
As has already been mentioned, the new imprint series will also include reissues; but it is particularly nice to know that Les Arts Florissants is still very much an active organization. Indeed, they will devote almost two weeks of their time to a United States tour. They will begin with a four-evening run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music between April 14 and April 17. This will be followed by single concerts at Memorial Hall in Durham, North Carolina, on April 20, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri, on April 23, and Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) on April 24.