On Saturday afternoon I went to David Geffen Hall for the second time within a week to hear the New York Philharmonic. On this occasion the first half was given over chamber music while the second half featured selections from a rarely heard Baroque opera.
The program opened with the Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 15 (1879, rev. 1883) by Gabriel Fauré as performed by orchestra members Sheryl Staples, violin, Cynthia Phelps, viola, Carter Brey, cello, and guest artist Shai Wosner, piano. This was a relatively early work by Fauré, although by the time he wrote it he was already a respected composer. It was written during a time of personal anguish after his fiancée Marianne Viardot, daughter of the famous soprano Pauline Viardot, had broken off their engagement for reasons that are not entirely clear. Also unclear is the impact, if any, that this disappointment had on the composition of the present quartet. True, the third movement adagio has a definite air of melancholy, but then again this is not at all unusual in a slow movement and does not necessarily reflect the composer's own feelings. If there were any reference to the breakup in the final movement allegro we will never know as the entire movement was thoroughly rewritten and the original destroyed. Taking the music on its own merits, it is an interesting but certainly not profound work that places a great deal of emphasis on style, often to the detriment of substance. It was played extremely well by all four musicians at this concert. It's always interesting for me to hear orchestra members perform chamber music that allows their individuality to appear more clearly than when playing with the entire orchestra.
After intermission, the orchestra, led by Baroque specialist Emmanuelle Haïm, returned onstage to perform the final work on the program, selections from the opera Dardanus (1739, rev. 1744) by Jean-Philippe Rameau. Though already age 50 when he began his career as an opera composer, Rameau nevertheless stirred a great deal of controversy with his "avant-garde" style, that is, his refusal to compose in the same manner as his illustrious seventeenth century predecessor Jean-Baptiste Lully. In spite of this opposition, Rameau achieved a great deal of success and his works were regularly staged at the Paris Opéra. While Dardanus was not an overwhelming triumph when it first appeared, the original production did have a respectable run of 26 performances, much to the chagrin of the lullists.
Dardanus is a tragédie lyrique, a particularly French form first introduced by Lully in the preceding century; in some respects the genre resembled opera seria in that it adapted its plots from classical mythology and emphasized the noble ancestry of its characters. Dardanus follows the pattern as it relates the exploits of its eponymous hero, the ancestor of the Trojan people. Perhaps the best description of the selections performed at this concert was that given in the program notes:
"Following the call-to-order of the Ouverture, the suite assembled here by Emmanuelle Haïm includes numerous winning examples of French dances — menuet, tambourin, gavotte, rigaudon — but even those formal types are crafted to their dramatic moments and are in no way stereotyped.... Also included are several symphonies, instrumental expanses that provided dramatic underpinnings to specific scenes: a celebratory Marche pour les différentes nations (March for the Various Nations...), the strutting Entrée pour les guerriers (Entry of the Warriors), the bristling Bruit de guerre (Noise of War), and the tender Sommeil... The suite concludes just as the opera does, with an extended chaconne..."
While the orchestral forces used in Wednesday evening's performance of Handel were, in keeping with the original eighteenth century instrumentation, quite slight and never amounted to more than a modest chamber ensemble sometimes consisting only of strings, those employed for Dardanus were much closer in size to a modern orchestra and made use of a much wider array of instruments.
Emmanuelle Haïm, who was previously a harpsichordist with Les Arts Florissants, founded her own ensemble, Le Concert d'Astrée, in 2000. This series of concerts marked her debut with the Philharmonic. She displayed considerable skill on the podium; I was especially impressed by her work on the Dardanus suite which I found to be highly enjoyable and much more fun than one would expect of so serious a work. Rameau's music did, in fact, sound extremely innovative and I could well understand how his contemporaries might have found it avant-garde.