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CD Review

Apollon Orateur

17th-Century French Lute Music

  • Denis Gaultier:
  • Pièces en sol majeur
  • Pièces en la mineur
  • Pièces en fa majeur
  • Pièces en si mineur
  • Ennemond Gaultier:
  • Chaconne (do majeur)
  • Chaconne (fa majeur)
Anthony Bailes, lute
Ramée RAM0904
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Ramée is a Belgian label founded just five years ago by Rainer Arndt. For all its modest aspirations (as an independent), its positive impact on the early music community has been considerable, with a disproportionately high percentage of its releases winning awards. Many more have received exceptional press and listener acclaim. Limiting itself to half a dozen or so CDs each year, Ramée tends to concentrate on recherché repertoire, much of which is recorded by the label's performers for the first time. To the collector and lover of early music, Ramée is also special because of the sound quality of the recordings; because of the high standard of musicology which both informs the performances themselves and underpins the liner notes – and indeed because of the pleasing nature of the CDs' presentation… objets d'art.

Apollon Orateur, seventeenth century lute music by Denis (1603-1672) and Ennemond (1575-1651) Gaultier, is no exception. Playing a lute by Gregori Ferdinand Wenger from 1722, British lutenist Anthony Bailes presents here a performance of great perception and drive. Yet one which tempers brilliance (the pieces all reveal great individuality) with affection. To record the lute can be to steer a difficult path between pointing up the delicacies and intimacies of sound at the expense of understanding the musical import on the one hand; and emphasizing the musical line but submerging the aural experience on the other: the lute is a "noisy" instrument.

On this recording Arndt has got the balance right. Not only does one feel that one is in the room with Bailes – although he is playing neither for us, nor himself; but for the Gaultiers! But one also comes away with an unambiguous and compelling appreciation of the intricacies used by the composers, their artistic intentions and the ways in which they projected their particular musical priorities onto the idioms of the day. One could hardly ask for more from a recital of this kind.

Nevertheless, there is an additional benefit here: the music of the Gaultiers is closely associated with Louis XIV, the "Sun King". Indeed contemporaries made comparisons, if not explicitly between Denis Gaultier and the sun god, Apollo, then certainly between the role of the latter as epitome of all that was uplifting and aspirational in art and the greatly-esteemed Gaultier. It is also the gentle, self-assured, mature status of the composer that informs Bailes' playing on this CD. Most of the pieces are slow, though hardly just "deliberate". The music is considered and weighty, though far from ponderous. And substantial without being overbearing. Bailes is not imbuing the music with these characteristics; he is inside it gently "extruding" them. For what emerges is in no way temporary or experimental; but assured and well-founded.

In turn, even the most cursory attention to the music impresses one with its economy. Gaultier eschews the elaborate decoration which we tend to associate with other composers of Louis XIV's court. By the time Gaultier was writing, the lute as an eleven-course instrument tuned to a D minor chord was pretty well established. Galtier concentrated on the more adventurous limits of the lute as an instrument of expression – although to play his compositions well also requires great technique, as Bailes shows.

The majority of the music on this CD (four full suites by Dennis; two chaconnes by Ennemond, who was his elder cousin – and perhaps even more accomplished) was published in the lute manuscript, "La Rhétorique des Dieux". Notably, the style and content of the (nominally dance) suites address compositional concerns beyond those we associate with the courante and gigue etc… much as those of Bach were to do a couple of generations later. Bailes brings out the greater lyricism, an ecstasy almost – but by concentrating on the music's purpose and the directions in which it was going, not its surface.

For all the eminence and influence of the Gaultiers, there is no other recording dedicated to either of them in the current catalog. This enterprising and extremely accessible CD starts to put that right with performances that superbly blend the music's intellect with its emotional appeal. Generally introspective, gentle and understated, Anthony Bailes nevertheless commends its depth and delight to us with equally unassuming and highly accomplished playing. At the end of a session in the world of the Gaultiers, we realize that the insistence on immersion has actually somehow been all ours. For those interested in exploring this neglected area of the repertoire, for lute lovers looking for greater understanding of the way the instrument developed, for anyone wanting a better understanding of the early French Baroque in all its aspects, Apollon Orateur can safely be put at the top of the list.

Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey