Instruments of Time and Truth: Le Coucher de Soleil Back

Instruments of Time and Truth (IT&T) is a close-knit group of period instrumentalists founded in 2014 by Gabriel Amherst and Judith Evans, who is the Concerts Manager. Edward Higginbottom became Principal Director having retired as Director of New College Choir. The musicians come from the Oxford area and aim to perform early music on period instruments to the highest standards locally, nationally and internationally. In a very short time they have established a fine reputation.

In a well-attended concert in the Holywell Music Room, Oxford on 18 November, a small group performed works by François Couperin and his contemporaries. The concert was titled Le Coucher de Soleil, and all of the works were composed in France between c.1690 and 1748, from Couperin (1668-1733) to Rameau (1683-1764), illustrating a very intense period of change loosely describable as from ‘early’ to ‘baroque’. Musically this was a period of the decline of the viol consort and the rise of the violin family leading to the string quartet later in the eighteenth century. A detailed account by Higginbottom of the musical, social and political background was given in the programme. The title stems from the death of the Sun King, Louis XIV in 1715. Indeed, there was a very strong pedagogical atmosphere to the event, perhaps reflecting the Director’s background. Each work was introduced by Higginbottom speaking from the keyboard. He should have known that the spoken voice in the Music Room cannot be heard at all clearly unless the speaker stands at the front of the stage. Fortunately, the programme notes could be studied afterwards.

On this occasion the musicians were violins Bojan Čičič and Dan Edgar, and basse de viole Susanne Heinrich. The soprano singer was Robyn Allegra Parton, an Oxford Lieder-Festival prize-winner, also remembered from her role in New Chamber Opera Studio’s The Fall of the House of Usher in 2008 while still a student; more recently she was heard in Handel’s Israel in Egypt at the 2016 Oxford Early Music Festival. Higginbottom directed from the harpsichord.

The first work, Couperin’s Sonate ‘La Pucelle’ for two violins and continuo, was a series of eight dance movements, alternatively gravement, gayement then vivement, gracieusement, gayement. In style these reminded of the last great composer for the viol, Marin Marais (1656-1728), a contemporary of Couperin. The following work, also by Couperin, was Première Leçons de Ténèbres (c.1715) sung by Parton to a Latin text from Lamentations, written to be performed by the nuns of L’Abbaye de Longchamps, where is now the Bois de Boulogne.

The three remaining pieces in the first half of the concert were by Couperin’s contemporaries. First Higginbottom played a very impressive Chaconne for clavecin  (1707) by Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, a composer who in her day was rated almost as highly as Couperin. Then a sonata for violin and continuo by Jean-Marie Leclair and a Cantate Abraham (1715) by Louis-Nicolas de Clérambault, again beautifully sung by Parton.

The first half of the eighteenth century saw not only the triumph of the violin family over the viols but also the conscious unification of the French and Italian styles. Of the first, this concert took me back to a period of residence in Grenoble at the beginning of the 1990s, in particular listening to early French music in the nearby Château du Touvet and in the small baroque chapel of Ste Marie d’en Haut. In the latter, a concert devoted to Marais was introduced by a viol enthusiast extolling the virtues of his instrument. He was interrupted by and nearly came to blows with a violin maker!

The other main theme, Couperin’s attempts to bring about the reconciliation of the French and the Italian styles was represented by his L’apothéose de Corelli of 1724, his tribute to a composer he revered. It consists of an oration interrupted by musical interludes. The words, representing those of Corelli, were spoken by Parton in good French but one wondered whether authenticity would not have been better served by using a French actor. The apothéose was preceded by mid-eighteenth-century works by Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville and by Rameau, illustrating the emergence of the new style

This was a fascinating concert, illustrating, in a carefully chosen programme, the immense changes in French music in the early years of the eighteenth century. However, as an early music enthusiast companion pointed out, there was no discussion of pitch or temperament or of the instruments used, which one might have expected from the title of the group.

Instruments of Time and Truth is a welcome addition to the national concert scene, filling the gap left by the departure of the ‘earlier’ viol consort Phantasm from Oxford to Berlin. The future programme of IT&T can be found on their website. It includes performances of Handel’s Messiah in December 2016 and a concert in Oxford on 10 February 2017 which includes Bach’s Wedding Cantata.

Instruments of Time and Truth performed in Oxford on 18 November 2016.

© PETER SCHOFIELD