Review: Collegial Camaraderie Highlights the Voyage of the Four Nations Ensemble at Merkin
By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, April 11, 2018
Taking off from Watteau’s ambiguous, evocative painting L’Embarquement pour Cythère, the Four Nations Ensemble came up with an ambiguous, evocative and, in the end, deeply stirring program of French music ranging over the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, beginning with Duparc’s “Invitation au Voyage,” which was inspired by Watteau’s masterpiece, and ending with Debussy’s “L’Isle Joyeuse,” which embodies it.
The point, laid out in a spoken introduction by the ensemble’s director Andrew Appel, was to trace an impulse common to poets and composers in two very different, but equally troubled, eras: to offer up a sort of collective “prayer that the world might be beautiful and liveable in a way they couldn’t quite get their hands on.” That seemed like a mighty tall order, so how did it work out in the hall?
Well, before we get to that, let’s talk about the hall itself. Merkin is a comfortable, intimate place, but the acoustic is treacherous, especially to keyboard instruments, so that a modern concert grand, no matter how delicately it’s played, turns loud, hard, and granular and readily overbalances its partners, while a harpsichord comes across as a pitched blur if it’s put against any kind of external counterpoint. So while Appel, at the harpsichord, is plainly a wonderful collaborative artist who puts a lot of feeling into his work, you really couldn’t tell what he was playing except when he accompanied a lone voice. On the other side of the stage, however, you could hear every single note that Spencer Myer played as if it had its own spotlight, even though Myer was making visible efforts to blend his own sound and not overwhelm that same lone voice.
That said, the program worked out very well indeed. What linked one piece to another wasn’t always clear, but the overall sequence had a coherent emotional shape—a delicate back-and-forth between idealism and rueful awareness that gave the Baroque pieces an undercurrent of questioning and longing, and the “Impressionist” pieces an air of purposeful affirmation. Thus, Francoeur, Boismortier, and Leclair came across, not as token stops on yet another style-survey, but as real people with something on their minds, while Fauré, Duparc, and Debussy sounded almost oracular in their ringing validations of love, even in crazy times.
For my money, the standout items on the program were the oldest and most obscure: two vocal pieces by Michel Lambert (1610-1696) that combined the pains and raptures of love in exquisitely equal measure, and then sent the whole package up with wry wit. (One representative line works out to, “If you must bear chains, make sure they’re beautiful.”) These were wonderfully characterized by Appel and soprano Pascale Beaudin. Everything else was extremely well done, too, and everyone onstage had at least one opportunity to shine individually: O’Sullivan’s eloquent account of the Boismortier largo; Post’s poetically varied arpeggiations in the Couperin concert; Beaudin and Myer’s gorgeous realization of the line “Votre pure mélancolie/Est le miroir de mon amour,” in Debussy’s “Jets d’eaux”; and Myer’s knockout “L’Isle Joyeuse” (although his varied recapitulation in “La fille aux cheveux de lin” was poetry itself and will haunt me for weeks).
Perhaps nicest of all was the human generosity on display: everyone came out together and stayed onstage throughout the program, and the guest artist got the grand finale all to himself, while everyone else hung attentively on every note. This made the point of the program almost as well as the program itself: “I am here,” it seemed to cry out, “and I can see joy even when I cannot reach it. Life can be better than it is.” Maybe we’re all a little bit crazy these days, but that’s what it felt like. People cheered and wept.
Invitation to a Voyage—Perfect Love in Two Centuries presented by The Four Nations Ensemble at Merkin Concert Hall on Monday, April 9, 2018. Andrew Appel, harpsichord and director; Pascale Beaudin, soprano; Adriane Post, violin; Loretta O‘Sullivan, cello; with special guest Spencer Myer, piano.
DUPARC L’Invitation au Voyage
FRANCOEUR Sonata XII in E major, for cello and continuo
FAURÉ Clair de lune
BOISMORTIER Largo, from Sonata II in G major, for cello
DEBUSSY Les Jets d’eau
LECLAIR Andante, from Sonata I, Book 4, in A major
FRANÇOIS COUPERIN Septième concert
LAMBERT Vos Mespris
LAMBERT Récit de la beauté
DEBUSSY La fille aux cheveux de lin
DEBUSSY L’Isle Joyeuse
Cover: Loretta O’Sullivan and Andrew Appel; courtesy of artists.