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Chamber Music Raleigh and their latest guest artists, Four Nations Ensemble, had a different idea for a Valentine's Day concert than you might expect, disdaining both the saintliness of religious music and the Hallmark cards sentimentality of sappy love songs and madrigals. Their Baroque Valentine's Day Celebration took up the theme of "When Love Goes Wrong" and, like the "Treacherous Love" concert by L'Académie du Roi Solei that we reviewed two years ago, reminded us that early music had a raw side, not circumscribed by salons or churches. Four Nations did indeed roam Europe more widely than the Roi Soleil group, presenting music by Handel, Vivaldi, François Couperin, Barbara Strozzi, Michael Haydn, Jean-Paul Martini, and Giuseppe Tartini. Both groups played the same trump card for their finales, the Médée cantata for soprano and instruments by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault.
Andrew Appel, who directs Four Nations from the harpsichord, acted as our host and offered his first thanks to the Chamber Music Society of Detroit, who produced "When Love Goes Wrong" as part of their new CameraMusic series. In order to remain unmasked, he introduced all the pieces – and all his fellow musicians – before we saw anyone else onscreen, lingering over the two prima donnas in the music, Queen Dido from Vergil's Aeneid and Jason's scorned wife Medea, somewhat softened in comparison with Euripides' tragedy. Appel found them both extremely attractive to Baroque composers in the sense that both delivered high drama and sharp contrasts, the antithesis of mellow background music for a dimly lit romantic rendezvous.
We could see the full Four Nations onstage (location never mentioned) when Appel began with a superb rendition of Couperin's utterly gorgeous Prelude No. 5 from L'art de toucher le clavecin – on a lovely, ornate harpsichord that wasn't quite as wide as his piano bench. The program was arranged in a way that gradually introduced us to the full ensemble, with cellist Loretta O'Sullivan taking the lead on Couperin's "Le Dodo ou l'amour au berceau," a piece normally heard on solo piano or harpsichord to somewhat better advantage. By jettisoning the charming trill that infiltrates the recurring melody, O'Sullivan slowed the piece down and invited a downcast "Three Blind Mice" monotony, though Appel's accompaniment was helpful.
Energy rose conspicuously when soprano Pascale Beaudin joined lutenist Scott Pauley for Strozzi's "Amor Dormiglione." It's unknown whether Strozzi was a courtesan, but the Venetian was incontrovertibly prolific as a songwriter and no doubt wanton, since the one formal portrait we have of her (clasping a lute) shows her with one breast bared. Appel pointed out the suggestiveness of the song, and lines like "Love sleep no more!" and "Arrows, arrows, fire, fire, arise, arise!" weren't about a cute cuddly concept of Cupid awakening. This was indeed the sort of song that Strozzi, a renowned singer, might have sung in plying a lewd trade. Curiously enough, Beaudin eschewed much of the song's seductive drama by remaining seated beside Pauley, who was brilliant in accompaniment. Nor was that the best position onstage for her to be singing, from an acoustic standpoint. The soprano's voice came to us muted with a distancing echo contrasting with the lute's clarity, but we could already espy loveliness in her sustained notes. Beaudin foreshadowed her fitness for the Médée when she detoured into moments of pouty resentment and amorous longing.
Shorter and darker than his previous Couperin solo, Prelude No. 2 was another beauty from Appel that perfectly bridged the importunate Strozzi and Handel's more emotional "Credete al mio dolo" (Believe my pain). Discreetly, Beaudin switched chairs with Pauley while Appel soloed and rose while O'Sullivan played an aching intro on the cello, easily her most affecting playing so far. This put the soprano near the far end of the harpsichord, roughly parallel with O'Sullivan at the other side, by far the sweetest spot onstage for her to sing. Beaudin projected the opening ache of the song, intensified her expression for the crying midsection – after more affecting work from O'Sullivan – and returned even more appealingly to the plaintive theme.
Following the pattern set by Beaudin, violinist Andrew Fouts remained seated in his chair as he made his long-awaited musical entrance, playing the lead in the Andante from Michael Haydn's Divertimento in C. Pacing was more in the Adagio range compared with other recordings I've sampled, but Fouts's tone was a fruity delight up in the treble, and the interplay between him and O'Sullivan, seated to his left, was quite enchanting. Fouts sounded even more commanding in Tartini's Sonata No. 10 in G minor, "Didone abbandonata" (Dido Abandoned). Nor did it hurt that this piece, originally written for violin and continuo, was expanded for Four Nations to include the entire instrumental quartet. Standing near the middle of the harpsichord, Fouts delivered lively contrasts from the beginning of the opening Affettuoso, including some transporting double-bowing that made the suicidal queen's lament all the more poignant. Backed by Appel's thrashing harpsichord rather than a mere piano, Fouts brought more clout to the turbulent Presto movement than Oistrakh delivered in his Paris recital album from 1959. In this and in the dancing Allegro finale, where the heroic Aeneas has left Dido far behind, Four Nations sounded more like the Fabio Biondi recording of 1992, another full-bodied performance.
Between these two instrumental exploits, Beaudin sang "Plaisir d'Amour," Martini's greatest hit – and one of Elvis Presley's greatest when it was transformed into "Can't Help Falling in Love." Best authentic recording I've heard is Bidu Sayão's radio performance from 1950, collected in 2009, and my all-time favorite commercial adaptation remains the incomparably sweet Joan Baez recording of 1961, uniquely sublime and heartbreaking. Like Suyão's version, Beaudin couldn't escape the comparatively earthbound lyric of the original work, brooding about the love and the lies of a faithless Sylvia, so anger and bitterness inhabit the middle of the song instead of bliss. Thanks to the lovely work by Appel at the keyboard, however, I was able to rediscover the two fine melodies so finely interwoven by Martini – and Beaudin's anger augured well for the Medea that lay ahead.
O'Sullivan moved over toward the middle of the harpsichord to take the lead in Vivaldi's Sonata No. 4 in B-flat, a spot that added echo to her cello. My favorite recording of this cello sonata by Jean-Guihen Queyras uses an organ and a theorbo to magical effect as opposed to the harpsichord-theorbo basso continuo offered by the Four Nations' Appel and Pauley. The cellist sounded best in the even-numbered Allegro movements, while Pauley's theorbo was most effective in the two odd-numbered Largos, particularly in the third movement, where his light strums and fingerings formed a halo around O'Sullivan's richly forlorn playing. Appel's thrashing harpsichord was most effective in the closing Allegro, combining with O'Sullivan's nimble work on Vivaldi's catchy melody to create the merriest music of the evening.
Both of the live Médée performances I've heard in the past two years, by Margaret Carpenter Haigh and Beaudin, have been more than equal to the best recording I've been able to audition, featuring Agnes Mellon. The spark of both these women, dressed to kill and spitting fire, bestowed a fierce energy on both live performances and ignited spirited accompaniment on both occasions. On my second go-round with the piece as Beaudin sang, I could pick up on two patterns of ebb and flow that Clérambault had crafted in his cantata. Structurally, the cantata shuttles between recitatives or preludes and arias, slowed fluid tempos and speed-ups that became increasingly dramatic when they recurred. Emotionally, the lulls corresponded with a narrator's objectivity, with Medea's nostalgia as she recalls her seduction and the sacrifices she made, with her retreat from murderous intent to poignant reconsideration as her heart rebels, and with the calm before the final storm when she contentedly observes that her spell has been cast. The quickenings connect with Medea's remembrances of her betrayal; with her jealousy and her thirst for vengeance; with her renewed fury when she realizes how foolish she is to be hesitant, loving, and merciful; and with her summons as she unleashes the forces of Hell to mete out her revenge. Capping the portrayal, there was an ebb-and-flow within Medea's frenzied wickedness as her outbursts of rage were punctuated with expressions of delight at the prospect of seeing her rival and her betrayer destroyed.
Fouts was at the forefront with Beaudin's deadly conjurations throughout this riveting performance, particularly when the last of the 12 sections turned into a frenzied witches' sabbath, and he kept fiddling – at a furious tempo – long past the moment of Medea's final words of hellish triumph. But perhaps the signature episode of Médée, and surely the most chilling, came when Fouts, Appel, and O'Sullivan – in a stop-and-go tattoo – cued up the march that became the undercurrent for Beaudain's wicked sorcery. No doubt about it now, this "Cruelle Fille des Enfers" evocation was cold, calculated murder, not a sudden impulse. And in her ensuing deployment of her spellbound fiends, "Volez, Démons, Volez!" Beaudin became regal, delighting in the mayhem while sustaining her fury. Insanity! No, this Medea did not tweet "This is what happens" after completing her handiwork, but Beaudin's majestic arrogance, as she stood there defiantly in the middle of the stage, emphatically stated that her Medea was capable of such monstrous vindictiveness.