Le Poème Harmonique, a tremendously skilled and fetchingly entertaining Early Music ensemble known for stage productions as well as straight concerts, has dove deeper into the past than usual with “Airs de Cour,” the program it brought to the American Academy of Arts and Letters yesterday as part of the Early Music program of Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. The group’s seven instrumentalists and four singers presented a set of secular airs de cour or “courtly songs,” derived or inspired from folk material, from late 16th and very early 17th century France, with subject matter ranging from the romantic to the cruel, and from the philosophical to the downright bawdy.
The ensemble’s easy virtuosity frees it to inject plenty of fun into its concerts, enlivening the music with dramatic flair, right down to small programmatic details. The fiery dynamics of “Hélas que me faut il faire” (“Alas what must I do”), for example, called for the singers to give a strong staccato accent to the word picque (“prick”) in a passage that means “Yet another [soldier] revolts and / Pricks my side with arrows.” In the till-then rhythmic song of heartache that begins “Ô combien est heureuse,” a sudden pause leads to a rubato passage as the singer cries Hélas (“Alas”).
There was character humor too, as when tenor Serge Goubioud takes the role of “Marguerite” in the jocular “A Paris sur petit pont” (“In Paris on the little bridge”), where carpenters at work ask the passing Marguerite what she has in her apron.
And there were songs acted with dramatic energy throughout. The ferociously mean “Allons vielle imperfaite” (“Come now, imperfect old woman”) was led boisterously by bass Geoffroy Buffiére, while the singers together delicately fired out the brittle but oh-so-understandable griping of the young narrator of “Tant et tant il m’ennuye,” whose father “Gave me to an old man / Who is over sixty…and I who am only fifteen, / Will I spend my time thus?” An entertaining folk song, for sure, but interesting to note how agitation against unfair traditional social conventions began ages before our modern “liberated” times.
Gentler moments were just as affecting: the languorous minor-key strains of “Quel secours”; the beautiful soft register achieved by Buffiére at the end of “Ô combien est heureuse”; the soft near-fadeout from the strings at the end of the folky “Les Mariniers,” leading into the angelic a capella start of “Mais voyez mon cher esmoy.” Mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot’s silvery tones lit up “Bien qu’un cruel martire,” which begins (in translation), “Even though a cruel martyrdom makes me listless…”
There wasn’t a listless moment during the 90-minute concert. One of the encores received a stripped-down light-opera treatment. The three encores – yes, three – reinforced the feeling of actually being in Europe, where multiple encores seem more common. I really started to think I was in France circa 1585. When I went downstairs to the restroom after the concert, seeing a sign saying “MEN” in English actually took me aback for a moment.
Le Poème Harmonique takes its historicity seriously. The singers used Middle French pronunciation in singing these songs, which can at times make the lines hard to follow in the program, even for a reader of French – but which, much more importantly, has a authenticating effect.
Period-appropriate too are the instruments: violas da gamba (treble, tenor, and bass) plus a double-bass-sized violone; an assortment of early flutes and a dulcian (precursor to the bassoon), all played by Jérémie Papasergio; lute; and baroque guitar, the latter in the deft hands of artistic director Vincent Dumestre, who founded Le Poème Harmonique in 1998.
Players and singers worked together as one creature through the program’s entertaining variety of works by numerous composers. I was unfamiliar with this repertoire, but left feeling I’d known it for years, the performances were so entertainingly presented, the music and poems so artful and yet so homey.
The audience’s enthusiasm made the three encores feel entirely called for. A studied hush descends over some Early Music concerts in the U.S., keeping the crowd’s response muffled. With a sense of fun equal to its razor-sharp musical skills, Le Poème Harmonique made sure nothing like that happened here.