These small-scale and rather beautiful cantatas will probably be completely unknown to many. Three were written in the first decade of the eighteenth century; the fourth, de Monteclair’s Ariane et Bacchus is a significantly later work from 1728. They’re played by Ensemble Battistin, which comprises two violins, viola, cello, viola de gamba, flute and harpsichord. De Montéclair was a double bass player and composer who specialised in cantata writing. He’d spent some time in Italy and had clearly absorbed certain elements of Italian vocal expression. La mort de Didon was written for voice, violin, flute and basso continuo in around 1709. It takes the familiar story of Dido’s rage at her abandonment by Aeneas and her despairing suicide and brings to the text intensely dramatic focus. The opening flying violin statements evoke Dido’s visceral and volatile emotive state before she even sings. The quelling flute makes a consolatory attempt but Dido’s scorn is concentrated in the ensuing revenge aria. Mezzo Fiona Campbell brings commendable passion to bear here; she has a lightish mezzo but it’s very well focused and equalized and she’s splendidly agile, surmounting the technical difficulties with expert assurance. The end is truly desolate, de Montéclair judging things perfectly. His second cantata is Ariane et Bacchus in which the classical tropes are reprised. This time it’s Ariane who has been abandoned by Theseus. Bacchus, moved and not a little in love with her, gives Ariadne a crown with seven gold stars which, after her death, becomes the constellation that bears her name – Ariadne’s Crown. De Montéclair proves adept once more with flute, unfolding a forlorn solo that winds around the mezzo. Her outbursts are powerful but well scaled but the highest plains of inspiration are reserved for the aria Regnez adorable mortelle – aptly noted as an air tendrement in which the sanguine vocal line is perfectly counterbalanced by the renewed athleticism of the flute. Bacchus, after all, is the answer to mortal dilemmas. Stuck was an Italian composer and so perfectly placed to embody the growing taste for the urbanity of Franco-Italian writing. Unlike de Montéclair who was a good double bassist, Stuck was a virtuoso cellist. Stuck was a court musician employed by the Duke of Orleans and thus knew Jean-Baptiste Morin who’d written the first French cantata. The two examples here derive from Stuck’s first book of cantatas (1706-14) and are superior examples of the genre. L’amant réconcilié offers a different slant from the emotive combustion of de Monteclair. This is a lyrical and delightful work, excellently sung by soprano Taryn Fiebig. She brings ardour but also clarity to her lines and Stuck surprises us all with his intensely involving and uplifting fugal finale. Céphale et Aurore is a contemporaneous work which takes the myth of Aurora, Goddess of the Dawn and her discovery of the mortal, sleeping Cephalus. This is a setting notable for its grave and compact beauty and its evocative setting. It also embraces the element of eager gaiety which it relinquishes almost immediately for pathos. All these emotive states are suggested through immediacy of word setting and subtlety of instrumental accompaniment. These four cantatas make for contrasting and rewarding listening, especially when performed so well as here and in so sympathetic an acoustic. ABC’s notes are full of information and full texts. The cover painting, The Triumph of Bacchus by Charles Joseph Natoire, is well suited to the de Montéclair, although it’s a sumptuously florid work!
[Jonathan Woolf - Musicweb 2007]