★★★★☆ A beautiful collection of works, performed with virtuosity, style and grace.

Melbourne Recital Centre
July 21, 2015

Early music ensemble Latitude 37 is dedicated to performing music of the 17th and 18th centuries played on period instruments. This program, L’Esprit d’Elégance, collected together six works from the court of France’s famous Sun King, Louis XIV (who ruled for an extraordinary 72 years until his death in 1715), and his successor Louis XV. Lesser-known composers were included alongside pillars of the French Baroque, producing an exciting, nuanced and captivating hour of music. This was further enhanced by the relaxed and informative introductions to each piece provided by the three members of Latitude 37: Julia Fredersdorff (baroque violin), Laura Vaughan (viola da gamba) and Donald Nicolson (harpsichord).

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729) was a harpsichordist of such prodigious ability that she was accepted into the French court while still in her teens. Renowned for her ability to improvise at considerable length, she became a significant composer who worked in a variety of forms. As Julia Fredersdorff noted, Jacquet de La Guerre’s works are rarely performed, an omission that Latitude 37 is redressing with the inclusion of her sumptuously lyrical five-movement Violin Sonata. This was performed with great delicacy and precision, its ornamental turns of phrase a highlight of the program and a revelation.

This was followed by Marin Marais’ (1656-1728) Fête Champetre, which translates roughly as ‘rustic dance,’ and is an expression at least in part of the French aristocracy’s tendency to play at being peasants and frolic with lambs. Scored for da gamba and continuo, Fête Champetre opens gently with a wavering melodic line suggestive of a shepherd’s flute, but segues into a ‘boots on’ foot-stomper reminiscent of some of the dances from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s (1683-1764) opera Les Indes galantes.

According to some commentators, Marais played viola da gamba like an angel, and Antoine Forqueray (1671-1745) like the devil. Forqueray had major issues with the rise of violin virtuosity in the 18th century, and set about demonstrating that the viola da gamba was the noblest instrument, had all the notes required for musical repertoire of the day, and that raffish violins were extraneous to tasteful music-making. Taking their cue from Rameau’s expansion of the sonic palette of harpsichord pieces through the addition of violin and viola da gamba, Latitude 37 arranged one of Forqueray’s da gamba pieces with harpsichord, producing a fascinating work of embellished ‘savage’ da gamba.

The varied and thoughtful program also included works by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689-1755), and Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747), and concluded with a piece by the towering figure of the French Baroque, Jean-Philippe Rameau, whose revolutionary (and enormous) treatises on harmony provided the blueprint for Western harmonic theory. His only chamber music was the Pièces de clavecin en concerts – harpsichord pieces arranged in concert form (with viola da gamba and violin) published in 1741. Reflecting its origin as a piece for harpsichord, the keyboard part is typically virtuosic, with complementary ornamental runs provided by the other instruments, particularly the viola da gamba.

L’Esprit d’Elégance was a fabulously beautiful collection of works, performed with virtuosity, style and grace.