The Mallarmé Chamber Players HIP (historically-informed performance) ensemble and the Choral Society of Durham’s Chamber Choir presented a program entitled “Drama in the French Baroque,” featuring works by three composers working in 18th century France. The music of this era is generally noted for its elegance and its elaborate ornamentations. Drama is not unheard of, but it was not the major element it would become in the romantic era.

An ensemble of ten strings (including violone), two flutes, harpsichord, theorbo, and organ opened the program with the Concerto Comique No. 25 in G minor by Michael Corrette (1717-95). It is the last of a set of works intended to be performed during intermissions of outdoor performances of opéras comiques. Each of the three movements of the concerto makes use of a popular melody of the day. “Les Sauvages” is from Henry Purcell’s opera, Danse des Deux Indiens de la Louisiane. It was a flowing and enchanting melodic jaunt performed with the delicate charm of the period instruments. “Quand on sçait aimer et plaire” is from philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a tune he wrote to his own text, defining the difference between love and like. This tune was a jaunty rustic delight with the melody played by the flutes and an obbligato-like accompaniment by plucked strings and harpsichord. Lastly, “La Fuerstemberg” is a tune hard to trace but likely inspired by a rumored affair between Comtesse de Fürstenberg and the Prince-Archbishop of Strasbourg. Possibly first published by Ballard in 1700, it is a lively rigaudon-like tune performed delightfully with a subtle sense of humor.

The HIP Mallarmé ensemble of first-rate musicians played with precision, warmth and exquisite interpretation.

The Chamber Choir of the Choral Society of Durham consists of 27 of the best voices from the larger chorus. Led by choral conductor Rodney Wynkoop, they offer quality performances of challenging works from the choral repertoire. They were joined by the Mallarmé Chamber Players for a performance of the motet Quam dilecta tabernacula tua by the French Baroque master Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). It is one of only four sacred works surviving from the composer’s pen. The pronounced elaborate and descriptive setting of the text is of dramatic proportions and hints of theatre which seems to have been his preferred mode of composing.

The motet is divided into seven parts, beginning with a quiet and meditative instrumental prelude and a florid soprano aria setting the first four lines of the text. This was followed by a choral passage with an abundance of exquisite melismatic writing. The third section is an operatically lyrical solo, leading into a gorgeous trio for two sopranos and baritone. The fifth part begins with a tenor solo which is then repeated by the full choir in a stately chorus ending with both soloist and chorus in joyful melisma. The sixth movement is a fervent prayer offered in full voice by the baritone soloist. The final chorus majestically sums up the piece with superb choral writing. The choir was outstanding throughout this performance. Balanced intonation and precise ensemble are always characteristics of Wynkoop-led ensembles.

After intermission, the major work on the program was Jean GillesRequiem, an extraordinary work for the era in which it was written. Gilles, in ill health most of his life, survived only 37 years (1668-1705). He had been commissioned to write a setting of the Requiem Mass for a public official who had died. After having received a payment on the project, Gilles completed the Requiem, but the family found that mounting a performance would cost more than they wanted to spend and bailed out of the contract.

After Gilles’ death, the manuscript was found among his effects, and musicians with whom he had worked arranged a performance for his funeral service. It was later performed at the funerals of Louis XIV (1716), King Stanislaus I of Poland (1736), Jean-Philippe Rameau (1764), and Louis XV of France (1774). It was one of the most widely heard sacred works of the 18th century.

This Requiem does not include the bombastic of the “Dies irae” for which Verdi and Berlioz in the next century are famous. Its mood is more of comfort and uplift than of grief and sorrow, and Wynkoop’s upbeat tempos were supportive of this.

There have been many different versions with additions of instruments and other changes that suited the time and the situation. The edition that was used in this performance reflects the latest research into the earliest available manuscripts and practices of the time.

Throughout the work, the composer alternates solos, duets, and trios with choral passages, joyful sections, and solemn sections. For example, the Introit is preceded by a solo drum figure on a muffled field drum (performed by John Hanks), setting the somber rhythm of the opening “Requiem aeternam,” which is followed by the happy “Et lux perpetua.” Each movement has its special charm and elements that match the music to the meaning of the text. The Sanctus begins with a serene baritone solo and a lovely duet with the tenor and then turns exuberant with the Osannas. Consolation, comfort, warm reassurance and joy are all a part of this remarkable work, and the performance was a memorable delight. The chorus and the instrumentalists were outstanding and the soloists were superb – sopranos Kristen Blackman and Wendy Aldwyn, alto Allison Wagstaff, tenor Daniel Shirley, and bass Nate Jones.

Bravo to all!