It was during the lockdown period that I became aware and, subsequently, enchanted by the music making of French period ensemble Les Musiciens de Saint Julien. This was primarily the result of endless browsing on Spotify looking for tracks to rejuvenate my historically-informed performance or ‘HIP’ playlist. The group, with scholar and flautist Francois Lazarevitch at the helm, prides itself on an approach to performance which is highly eclectic. Indeed, their appreciation for historical documentation stands vis a vis with a blazing desire to improvise and a penchant for folk music, articulated through their approach to rhythm and fascinating choice of instrumentation. This ethos pervades their recording of Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) music, where British countertenor Tim Mead joins this ensemble on this thrilling voyage exploring the composer’s diverse output. Despite Purcell’s works evidently lauded through the ensemble’s robust playing and Mead’s mesmerising voice, it is interesting to observe various traditional folk tunes scattered throughout the album. By acknowledging this among other features, I could not help but understand Lazarevitch’s enterprise not simply as an exploration of Purcell’s music, but of the music which defined this period in England; the very tunes, dance structures and texts which defined this age as a landmark moment in English music.
The close-knit musicality of this ensemble is evident right from the album’s outset, with Purcell’s incidental music for John Dryden’s renowned play, Amphytron kicking off this exuberant dance party. Three dance structures – the French “Minuet” and the folk “Bourrée” sandwiching the British Hornpipe (which resembles a jig) – are immediately presented, establishing the album’s intention to inform the listener on popular baroque structures. As with the other dances on display, the group’s imaginative ornamentation, musical shaping and phrasing, and flexible approach toward rhythm (clearly injected with a folk-like vitality) were truly electrifying to experience. Indeed, their performance of the explosive “Aire” from The Virtuous Wife –more incidental music on show– best conveys this idiosyncratic performance practice. Here, two recorders seamlessly decorate a brisk and complex melodic line, driven by an exhilarating bass texture, consisting of pizzicato double bass and staccato organ. Exotic woodwind instruments including recorders are brought to the fore in this album, demonstrating the ensemble’s interest in promoting rare instruments within this repertory. As the group’s resident bagpipe player, Lazarevitch’s performance of the traditional tune ’Hey boys, up go we’, which seamlessly proceeds the tenor aria ‘May Her Blest Example Chaste’ from the Birthday Ode for Queen Mary (with a solo violin covering the voice in this instance) delivers an unusual dimension to this English ditty. A pleasant surprise, nonetheless.
Tim Mead’s contribution here is breathtaking, demonstrating a musicianship that moulds well with the zealous musical quality of the French ensemble. The ‘Songs’ on show here display a broad mix of arias from Purcell’s most renowned operas and oratorios. Despite the diversity of moods and contexts, Mead’s consistent richness of lyrical display and attention to text is exceptional, resulting in breathtaking and, indeed, benchmark performances of this staple English repertoire. His most memorable contribution, in my opinion, concerns Lazarevitch’s rendition of “Strike the viol” from Purcell’s Come Ye Sons of Art which, when placed against recordings by ensembles closer to home, strikes (excuse the pun) due to its brisker tempo and absence of voice in the ritornello. However, the result is astonishing: with the instrumentalists generating a fiery and vivacious accompaniment (with all their qualities mentioned previously in full force), Mead’s vocal prowess blazes even stronger with a performance which injects such vitality into Lazarevitch’s interpretation. His approach to the more tranquil repertoire in Lazarevitch’s Purcellian voyage is equally as gripping. His performance of ’Fairest Isle’ –Venus’s timeless aria from Purcell’s King Arthur appearing at the end of the opera– is beautifully controlled and majestic, wonderfully revealing the moment the King is reassured of unity between the Britons and Saxons. Mead’s cool and collected stance did not only impress here, but the solo violin’s own flourishes of English cadences in the ritornello were also greatly enjoyed. Finally, Mead here is not excluded from the ensemble’s folk endeavours. In fact, his performance of the jovial Scottish ditty ’Twas Within a Furlong of Edinboro’ Town’ is a real gem of this album.
Lazarevitch’s approach to Purcell’s music certainly provokes the ear, and like so many of his other projects (not forgetting his ‘unconventional’ take on Vivaldi’s Le Quattro Stagioni), Les Musicens de Saint Julien seem to thrive from toying with repertoire considered sacrosanct among audiences today. However, performance practice notwithstanding, one cannot deny that their playing is some of the most robust and mesmerising out there on the market today. The players exude such confidence in their approach to virtuosic lines, rhythm and ornamentation, demonstrating an admirable authority upon this repertoire. Particular mention must go to the group’s exquisite continuo section – harpsichordist Justin Taylor and organist Marie Van Rhijn – for grounding these performances with creative and highly charged figured bass realisations. When I first encountered this album, I almost felt that, at points, the constant ‘folk-like’ tinge on pieces was a little repetitive and sometimes exhausting to hear, especially toward the end of the disc. However, by inserting tranquil numbers such as the G minor “Pavane” for strings and continuo, the rather frolic nature of this programme was certainly calmed down. Famed for its unceasing and unrelenting chain of suspensions, the ensemble momentarily set aside their improvisation and folk tendencies to approach this work with such delicacy, revering the composer’s idiosyncratic harmonic language and luscious melodic lines. I look forward to Lazarevitch’s next project with bated breath.