Les quarte saisons du luth
Seventeenth-century French lute music has a distinct sound quality unlike any other. It is musique recherchée, appealing then as now to a relatively small number of enthusiasts. It involves snippets of sound which create a variety of moods and effects. There are elements of polyphony, but not always a clear number of voices. There are glimpses of melodies, but not suitable for singing in the bath. The overall texture varies, but is generally quite thin, with musical ideas suggested rather than hammered out. It is enhanced with a plethora of ornaments. It is clearly expressive, but quite what it expresses is elusive.
In this charming, well-played anthology of French lute music Simone Vallerotonda groups pieces according to the four seasons, the four elements, and the four humours. First is Winter – Earth – Black Bile – Spleen – and the key of C minor. The mood of this group is set by an unmeasured Prélude by Charles Mouton (1626-1699), no. 22 in the CNRS edition. One might expect some rhythmic freedom in this sort of piece, but I think Vallerotonda overdoes it. For example, he makes no clear distinction between crotchets and quavers, as if he makes the rhythm up as he goes along. Better to listen without looking at the score. Mouton’s final cadence is extraordinary and unsettling: the dominant – a broken chord of G major with a seventh – takes us predictably to C minor defined by an e’ flat. Two quavers later there is an e’ natural switching the tonality to a cheerful C major, but any optimism suggested by the new key is soon erased, the bar ending back with e’ flat and a mournful chord of C minor.
There follows Mouton’s La belle Espagnole (CNRS no. 27), a chaconne with distinctly unequal quavers. Perfect cadences in C minor occur every four bars in the first half of the piece, and then, with harmonic progressions becoming more complex, they occur every eight bars. There is much variety, including a scale in the bass rising from the lowest note of Mouton’s 11-course lute, and a rising chromatic scale in the bass from e flat to c’. In fact chromaticism is an ever-present feature of the piece.
More sober is Mouton’s La belle Florentine, a sarabande which ambles along at a slower speed, again with unequal quavers, and a few strums. The inherent melancholy of the piece is partly derived from its low tessitura: in the long first section the first course is not used at all, and but for one open string note in bar 6 and four more at the end of the section, the second course is not used either. Thereafter a few higher notes begin to appear culminating with an anguished c” (7th fret on the 1st course) towards the end. Vallerotonda returns to the first section for a petite reprise of gloom.
Amongst the pieces in the Winter set are Tombeau Mazarin by Robert de Visée (1650-1725), played with some slides up to high notes, and down to lower ones, and a repetitive chaconne, La Comete, by Jacques Gallot (1625-95). This last piece has unexpected harmonic turns and is very soothing on the ears, but I do not understand why it should be included in the Winter set. Gallot’s Chaconne is in C major, and does not evoke Black Bile and Spleen as the C minor pieces allegedly do. However, from the programming point of view it does round off the set nicely.
One might have expected Spring to follow Winter, but here it is Summer which comes next – Choleric – Fire – Yellow Bile – Liver – and music in G minor by different composers. Particularly noteworthy is Air pour les esclaves africains by Jean Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). It is a fine piece, reminiscent of Lully, and Vallerotonda’s transcription sounds well on the lute. The fourth piece of the set is a courante in G major by Robert de Visée, so no Yellow Bile and Liver here. By the way, it would have been helpful to include more information in the liner notes about the music. Which courante is it, and from which source?
The third season of the CD is Autumn – Phlegmatic – Water – Phlegm – Head – and music in D minor. One of the items is another transcription of music by Rameau, this time from a harpsichord solo, Les Tendres Plaintes, which comes from Rameau’s Pieces de Clavessin (Paris, n.d. ) p. 15. The piece consists of two voices for the most part, mainly with continuous quavers in the bass, and slower note values in the treble. To fit on the lute, the music has to be transposed down an octave, but otherwise little needs changing for a playable transcription. Most of the music on the CD was written for the 11-course lute, but in his transcription, Vallerotonda takes advantage of the low A available on his 13-course instrument. The last Autumn track is Canaries ou Gigue by Valentin Strobel (1610-69), a surprising choice since Strobel was German, not French.
The last season is Spring – Sanguine – Air – Blood – Heart – and A major/ minor. The set begins with an upbeat La Muzette by Robert de Visée, the first half of which is in A major, and the second half in A minor. In contrast, it is followed by De Visée’s beautiful Tombeau du Vieux Gallot in A minor, where the bass is forever heading downward, and the final chord is shockingly dissonant. There follow two pieces by Jacques Gallot – La Cicogne and Les Castagnettes – the latter with many off-beats strums. The set ends with Charles Mouton’s My mistress is pretty [Bransle de Mantoue], no. 114 in the CNRS edition, played with many ornaments added to the repeats of sections and a flurry of notes enlivening the repeat of bars 7. The CD ends with an intabulation of Les Barricades Mystérieuses by François Couperin (1668-1733). The piece is in B flat major, which does not fit any of the four seasons, but its justification for being included is given as “Eucrasia or balance of the four temperaments”.
Simone Vallerotonda’s CD includes some delightful music which he plays well, but trying to link these pieces to the seasons, elements, and humours, is illogical, fanciful nonsense.