A Rare NYC Performance of a Centuries-Old French Epic

by delarue

Music Before 1800’s monthly concerts give ambitious concertgoers a chance to hear rare works that sometimes haven’t been performed here for centuries..or maybe ever, in the hundreds of years since they were written. Most of these shows are at Corpus Christi Church at 529 W 121St St., just up the hil from the 125th St. stop on the 1 train. You can get in for as little as $10.

Has Marc Antoine Charpentier’s Christmas Pastorale, dating from around 1686, ever been performed in New York? If so, Music Before 1800 may have staged it. For serious verisimilitude, they’re bringing in French vocal and instrumental group Ensemble Correspondances to the church play it this Dec 16 at 4 PM. The ensemble – whose name means “connections” – recorded it a couple of years ago, and have a new album of Charpentier’s La Descent d’Orphee aux Enfers streaming at Spotify. It’s a good way to become acquainted with how they tackle Charpentier’s alternately lavish and spare dynamics, as well as his similarly diverse themes.

If you can get used to a Gallic group who roll their R’s, Spanish style, this album will immerse you in elegant, sometimes unexpected counterpoint, with striking yet comfortably balanced contrasts between the men’s and women’s voices. While this was not written in contemporary French, if you speak the language, the dialogue is remarkably easy to understand. While the suite’s theme may be on the hellish side, the music is anything but, with sinuous flute harmonies woven into lushly lilting strings and a thicket of viola da gamba, all imbued with the ambered, slightly astringent tone that period instruments deliver. As is the custom with digital recordings these days, the album is divided up into 26 separate tracks, many of them less than a minute long.

Soprano Caroline Weynants displays a stately but fetching, almost imploring delivery at times. As the protagonist’s journey becomes more perilous, the music grows more stark and austere, then tilts toward an epic grandeur. Breathlessly scampering nymphs, desperate shepherds, cowardly lovers, all sorts of torments and ghosts pass through the sonic frame. The way the group motor along in places, it becomes very clear that our hero and his entourage can’t wait to get the hell out. Lively operatic drama gives way to a brightly flurrying fanfare and then a moodily waltzing downward trajectory: Euridyce, show your face so this poor guy can go home! “Stay with us forever,” is the choir’s solemn response. The end is every bit as somber as the intro is buoyant.