If you’re planning to record a disc of Baroque and Classical concertos on a modern instrument, where do you look—or I guess maybe “listen” is the more appropriate word—for the best back-up band? For me it would be a chamber ensemble with similar ideals of tone, color, and style, e.g. playing on instruments also modern, but with a kind of early music sensibility.
Enter Quebec’s Les Violins du Roy, one of the finest chamber orchestras in their class with all the period instrument touches, but with a soundscape that’s lush and full. This is the group Valérie Milot performs with on this, her sixth recording for the Canadian label Analekta. From its first notes you hear a coming together of ideas, a synthesis, and one of the most beautiful blends I’ve heard in some time.
Their shared interest in a lustrous modern tone full of greater expressive possibilities is at the heart of this CD’s magic. The three concertos come from a time when the harp was far from arriving at its full potential, and yet our composers seem to reach beyond the limitations of the time, giving us some of the richest repertoire ever written for the instrument.
His operas, oratorios, and fanciful concerti grossi aside, Handel was primarily an organist—his miracle of a concerto as much a fixture in the keyboard world as in the harp repertoire. The simplicity and music-box aspect of the opening movement has always left me catching my breathe in wonder, and with Valérie’s lightness and the skipping tempo (after all, an “andante allegro”), it’s like a ray of sunshine. Where Valérie really moves this wind-playing reviewer is in her interpretation of the slow movement; the long arching melody sounds sung rather than plucked, the cadenza filled with emotion.
Francois-Adrien Boieldieu is the least-known of this disc’s composers. Considered the “French Mozart” and largely building success as an opera composer, Boieldieu kept his head during the Reign of Terror by wisely leaving Paris for the countryside to work as a humble piano tuner. He took with him the memory of the time he lived with Sebastian Erard, the inventor of the double-action harp. Like Haydn’s great friendship with a trumpeter and Schubert’s with the inventor of the arpeggione (also known as the bowed guitar, we have this remarkable concerto due almost solely to this relationship. The concerto is filled with drama, line, a sense of narrative, and colorful touches that earned Boieldieu the affection of Berlioz, who noted the former possessed a “pleasing and tasteful elegance.” Valérie’s interpretation takes full advantage of the more expansive nature of the piece. Her ability to keep a decaying sound filled with forward motion and line in the aria-like slow movement fills the concerto with a kind of pathos and longing.
I am delighted that Valérie Milot pairs with Canadian flutist Claire Marchand, a musician who has made her mark in contemporary music. Her colorful, lithe tone possesses just the suppleness for Mozart and matches ideally the brightness and effervescence of both Valérie’s and Les Violins’ tones. And it’s fascinating, as you listen from beginning to end, this CD seems to take a natural progression from something small and precious, through opera’s most expressive moments, to what we might consider the music of the gods.
This is a beautifully crafted CD and one well worth many, many listenings. Its unabashed foray into the past through the lens of the present is absolutely eye-, no, ear-opening. •
Alison Young is a classical music host and producer at Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media. She left a successful career as a flutist a decade ago after she developed a neurological disorder, but before then enjoyed many years traveling the world giving recitals, performing concertos, playing with some of the finest orchestras, and recording her own discs. Nowadays, Young spins discs and is always on the lookout for the next best thing. You can contact her at email@example.com.