Music review: Folger Consort and Cathedra at Washington National Cathedral

January 16, 2013

The cavernous space of Washington National Cathedral came alive Friday night with the resplendent music of 17th-century France.

The Folger Consort and Cathedra, the resident vocal ensemble at the Cathedral, collaborated in a program divided between two masters of the era, Jean-Baptiste Lully and Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Julien Chauvin, the superb French violinist whose recordings are just becoming known in the United States, led the ensemble from the concertmaster’s desk with ease and assurance.

Anyone harboring notions that French music of the late 17th century is esoteric or overly refined would have been happily disabused. Vocal and instrumental colors, while subtle, were richly contrasted and infinitely varied. The musical rhetoric, even in pieces without text, was unmistakably vivid. And in music of the utmost gravity and seriousness, the spirit of the dance was never far away.

The program itself was as thoughtfully conceived as the performances were luminous.

The first half was devoted entirely to Lully, the Italian-born music master at the court of Louis XIV. A celebratory hymn in honor of the Dauphin’s baptism began the program. The nine voices of Cathedra distinguished themselves in a beautifully blended choral sound, as well as in extended solos throughout the concert. An instrumental suite from the Lully opera “Armide” showcased the 18-member orchestra of strings, winds (oboes and recorders), and keyboard. Then a choral “Dies Irae” (composed for the death of Queen Marie-Therese in 1683), more restrained than the dramatic settings in the requiems of Mozart and Verdi, was no less effective.

Like Lully before him, Charpentier collaborated closely with Moliere. The second half commenced with instrumental pieces composed for three productions by Moliere’s troupe, which eventually would become the Comedie-Francaises. Here, as in the Lully suite, Chauvin’s leadership lent the phrasing poise, elegance and character. In Charpentier’s brilliantly festive “Te Deum,” the orchestra was augmented by two trumpets and timpani, while florid vocal solos embellished the choral textures.

The Folger Consort’s artistic directors, Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall (both of whom played in the orchestra), and the Cathedral’s director of music, Michael McCarthy, are to be commended for this kind of mutually synergistic collaboration. Their decision to yield direction of the concert to Chauvin — a musician for whom this elaborate and challenging style seems second nature — was inspired. The result was a whole greater than its constituent parts.

Meanwhile, if performances of 330 years ago remotely resembled those heard Friday night, music in the age of the Sun King must have shone very brightly indeed.

Rucker is a freelance writer.

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