NEW YORK — Somebody goofed. New York early-music enthusiasts were forced Nov. 2 to choose between two compelling evenings of historically informed French Baroque performance: Les Arts Florissants and the young duo of Lea Desandre and Thomas Dunford, themselves regular members of that groundbreaking ensemble led by William Christie. Audience members were undoubtedly tempted by the larger group’s production of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, staged with contemporary dance, playing simultaneously at Lincoln Center. But loyal subscribers to Carnegie Hall’s Early Music series jealously held on to their prized tickets (the series sells out on subscription), filling the 270-seat Weill Recital Hall.
The mezzo-soprano and lutenist have been making music together since 2015, when the French-Italian Desandre joined the seventh edition of Le Jardin des Voix, Christie’s on-the-job training program for young singers. Since then, they have collaborated regularly, both as a duo and within Dunford’s dozen-member Jupiter Ensemble, heard on this series in a dazzling Vivaldi program in 2022. In recent years, Desandre’s repertoire has expanded into the opera house: Among other lyric mezzo-soprano roles, she has sung Cherubino in seven productions of Le Nozze di Figaro throughout Europe, and she will undertake the title role in Charpentier’s Médée at the Paris Opera in spring 2024. Dunford, a long-time participant in Les Arts Florissants, is a fixture with baroque orchestras throughout France and beyond. Dubbed the “Eric Clapton of the lute” for his impressive instrumental facility and sensitivity as an accompanist and continuo player, he proved both reactive partner and impressive soloist.
The 70-minute program — nine songs, five instrumental solos — offered an uninterrupted hour of early Baroque poetry interspersed with virtuoso music for theorbo, a lute with an extra course of range-increasing bass strings. The mood was gentle and intimate, drawing listeners into close communion with the players.
Italy at the end of the Renaissance was a hotbed of musical experimentation. In vocal music, the contrapuntal writing typical of madrigals was giving way to a new approach to setting text to music, especially in the intellectual circles of Florence and Rome. In addition to popular forms like songs in dance rhythms and lullabies, composers like Monteverdi experimented with a new declamatory style that sought to use music as a means of enhancing the meaning of the words.
This new way of writing would dovetail with the development of staged narratives in the earliest versions of opera (favola in musica). In the instrumental realm, improvisation became the platform for displaying virtuosity, as well as providing sensitive support for the soloist. Throughout the evening, Desandre sang with naturalness and clarity, as though she understood every word and every thought; Dunford played as if he did, too. Both ornamented their respective lines with insouciant ease, embodying the era’s ideal of sprezzatura, an elegant offhandedness described in The Book of the Courtier, Baldassare Castiglione’s 1528 guidebook to noble behavior. “Never let them see you sweat” is not a modern concept!
Songs by Monteverdi, Frescobaldi, Kapsberger, and Merula (along with two pretty but misplaced airs by Handel) alternated with instrumental toccate, mostly by Kapsberger. Dunford’s playing is a wonder. Flurries of fast notes and contrapuntal passages alternated in the different solos; most miraculous, he gave these improvised-sounding pieces shape and structure, no small feat for a repertoire that lacks the architecture of later Baroque music.
The centerpiece of the program was Monteverdi’s “Se i languidi miei sguardi”(subtitled “Lettera Amorosa,” the name of this program), a solo in the new recitative style from his seventh book of madrigals. “If my languid looks, sighs, and stammers, cannot persuade you of my passion, read this letter,” begins the 10-minute confession, on a text by Claudio Achillini, describing the beloved’s attributes, and the lover’s enslavement to his passion, in rich imagery. The pace and intensity ebb and flow with the lover/poet’s emotional state. It was clear that singer and lutenist were sharing a moment.
While the program’s pervasive poise cast a hypnotic spell, the uptempo final number, “Quel sguardo sdegnosetto,” from Monteverdi’s 1632 collection of Scherzi musicali, infused extra energy and showed off Desandre’s virtuoso chops. Her fast runs embodied the showers of sparks, and of laughter, and Dunford strummed with fiery energy.
Two French encores provided a teaser from the duo’s latest album, Idylle, a nosegay of French love songs and instrumental solos spanning the 17th through 20th centuries. The delicate pseudo-Baroque accompaniment of Reynaldo Hahn’s “A Cloris” (1913) fit the lute even better than the original piano, and Desandre caressed the melody in her native flawless French. For a light and down-to-earth finale, “Le temps de l’amour,” a bouncy song recorded by ’60s pop icon Françoise Hardy, offered a chance to hear Dunford sing backup vocals while coaxing a rock beat from his theorbo.
The recital tour continues through Nov. 12, in Tucson. For dates and venues, go here.
Desandre will perform the title role in Charpentier’s Médée at the Paris Opera in April and May. For info go here.