Choc du Monde de la Musique -
10 de Classica-Répertoire -
This disc is part of a superb series from France's Alpha label, mostly covering early Baroque repertory, that offers handsome packaging bearing an artwork contemporary with the music on the disc, shown both complete and in detail. The painting of Bacchus and Ariadne shown here is attributed to Louis Le Nain, one of those artists you may have sprinted past in the Louvre on your way to see the Mona Lisa. After reading the informative essay here, however, you'll take more time in that gallery on your next visit. The music on the disc, as with many recordings in this series, is even less well known; the composer of most of it, Antoine Boësset (1587-1643), is not even mentioned in music history texts. He was a composer of airs de cour, court airs, for Louis XIII, and that entire genre will be new to most non-French listeners.
On the evidence here, it's a treasure trove. Boësset's pieces are songs for a solo voice or a small group, accompanied by viols and lutes. They are lightly polyphonic at most, and they show the influence of Italian opera -- but it is only an accent, not the meat of the music. A few pieces are in Italian and a few in Spanish, another fashion of the day. The texts are mostly little pastoral scenes or odes to feminine beauty, aimed at exquisite exploration of a specific affect rather than at dramatic impact. There are also texted interludes from the ballet de cour and works from Boësset's contemporaries that fill out the picture of his place and time. One sacred song, Ô Dieu, is included and placed near the end, seemingly as a check on all the frivolity; it is especially lovely, as is the title track of the album, Je meurs sans mourir (I die without dying). There are also some instrumental interludes from dramatic works. The music is graceful, natural, and sensuous in the extreme.
The French ensemble Le Poème Harmonique gives gentle, highly evocative performances of these works, but the real highlight, perhaps, is the booklet, which weighs in at 56 pages (half English, half French). Along with the essay on Le Nain's painting is a complete introduction to Boësset and his world. It may be tough going for the casual reader, and it takes some work to find the commentary pertaining to a specific piece if you're just thumbing through, but it offers deep context for this music and brings it fully alive even though it's completely unfamiliar. The only complaints are that, for all the care obviously lavished on the booklet, two of the pieces, numbers 14 and 15, are reversed in the track listing from how they actually appear on disc (the ordering in the track listing would have been better), and that in one of the excerpts from stage works, track 11, the group makes a questionable decision to interpolate part of another work that doesn't really fit. This album is strongly recommended for lovers of the French Baroque, and indeed for anyone who has walked slowly through the Louvre and wondered about the culture of Louis XIII and his era. You could take a course at your local university, or you could just fork over the cost of this one CD.