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Fanfare Magazine: 39:6 (07-08/2016) 
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Alia Vox 

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Reviewer: Michael De Sapio

If you were under the impression that tone painting started with the Romantics, this pair of discs (taken from a live performance at a music festival in Narbonne, France) will prove you wrong. This program of musical “tempests, storms, and marine festivals” from the 17th and early 18th centuries shows that composers of that era were keenly interested in the pictorial capabilities of music and its power to move and astound the listener by evoking the wonders of nature. Rebel’s suite Les éléments, which opens the program, has the most copious descriptive content. To depict “Le cahos” (chaos), Rebel starts off with a dissonant tone cluster that seems to take us out of the Baroque and straight into the era of Ives and Stravinsky. The music soon settles into 18th-century practice, though, and there follow imaginative movements depicting water, air (complete with avian sounds), earth, and fire, along with some typical French dances.

As for the rest of the program, storm movements from operas by Marais and Rameau and especially Locke’s incidental music from The Tempest are all of strong musical interest. Less so Vivaldi’s “Tempesta di mare” Recorder Concerto, a tepid piece which fails to sound much like its purported subject (a storm at sea), and Telemann’s rather facile mythology-inspired Wassermusik suite; yet they too help fill out our picture of program music in the Baroque.

Le Concert des Nations makes an impressive showing at the start of the Rebel, with an intensely raw sound in “Le cahos” and some fearless unison playing from the violins in the furious figurations depicting “Le feu” (fire). With whooping natural brass and slashing strings, even the non-programmatic Loure is made to sound pictorial. But problems start to creep in with the Sicillienne, where the slack ensemble seems to go beyond a mere interpretation of the “lazy” French style. Locke’s Tempest music, with its eccentrically cranky lines and convoluted textures (part of Locke’s distinctive personal idiom), gives rise to some distressing ensemble problems. The evocative “Curtain Tune”—the only programmatic movement in the suite, depicting a rising and subsiding sea storm—sounds “at sea” indeed; one searches in vain for a clear pulse in the slow parts. In the dances, lines seem to collide and crash; many movements end with a type of exaggerated ritard that might be described as “stumbling to the finishing line,” a clear sign of ensemble instability. All this is puzzling, since Jordi Savall is listed as the director, and photos included in the booklet show him conducting the ensemble; but at times Le Concert des Nations sounds here like a conductorless group, one in which the various sections of the orchestra are unable to hear each other well. Perhaps the stage setup was to blame.

In addition to interpolated tambourine in several of the dance movements—sometimes a bit overenthusiastic, though mostly tasteful—we also hear intermittent theatrical sound effects by a wind machine. This may well have been effective in performance, but on a recording it soon becomes hokey and tiresome. Recorded sound is good; the audience is quiet, and the only applause that has been included is that at the very end. The audience also seems to be participating in the final Rameau Tambourin, with some clapping in rhythm!

Finally, we may question the appropriateness of the ecological sermonette which Savall integrates into his program notes, an earnest attempt to tie Baroque nature music in with the modern “climate change” movement. Mixing politics with music is never a good thing; nor are the philosophical underpinnings of Savall’s preachments very apropos to a concert of period music. Would it ever have occurred to Rebel or Telemann—men of a Christian age with a Christian cosmology—to personalize the planet Earth to the extent of describing it as the “victim of aggression” whose “principal enemy is Man”?

In sum, an exciting concept, but the end result is less than recommendable.

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