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GRAMOPHONE ( Awards 2021 - 11/2021)
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Reviewer: Mark Seow

This is a stonkingly good album. It makes me wonder: what exactly are these enviously intelligent, inventive and generous musicians drinking? What pours forth from the fountains at Les Jardins de William Christie? From the opening percussion that beckons us to join the party to its sumptuous close that is more Disney than Destouches – more on that to come – ‘Amazone’ is a journey of delight, dance, mystery, strength and doomed love. I would be greedy to want much more.

Jupiter, directed by Thomas Dunford, are on spectacular form. The vibrant string-playing in the scene from Giovanni Buonaventura Viviani’s Mitilene, regina delle amazzoni (1681) is flabbergastingly good. Then, next, the rhapsodic fiddling of Sophie Gent, sandwiched between – is that really the honeyed warmth of Cecilia Bartoli? Surely, I was mistaken, for when was the last time Bartoli appeared on a disc without her face featuring on its cover or her name blazoned in capital letters? But indeed, there she is, hidden in Giuseppe de Bottis’s duet from his 1707 Neapolitan setting of Mitilene. Gent plays with such speech in her bow that her solo ritornellos add another voice to the mournful mix. Really, we are utterly spoilt in violin-playing. For the aria ‘Sdegno all’armi, alle vendette’, the violins match every bit of sparkling coloratura, and the way Gent and Théotime Langlois de Swarte morph out of cheeping birds for Act 2 scene 1 of Vivaldi’s Ercole sul Termodonte (1723) in such tender telepathy is breathtaking.

Indeed, the interjections of the theatre, including the wind and not-sothunderous thunder machine, are terribly fun. Yet it is the mimetic contagiousness that is so pleasant: when, for example, wind machine makes way for far stormier gusts of violin and violent strumming in the ‘Sinfonia pour la tempête’ from Georg Caspar Schürmann’s Die getreue Alceste (1719). And then, the shimmering tinkle of tuned percussion and bells, woven into a tapestry by Dunford for the final scene of Act 3 of Carlo Pallavicino’s L’Antiope (1690). Then a dose of charming simplicity: Dunford plucks away at Marais’s L’Amériquaine as if it were music I’d known my entire life. But then, when Marais’s motifs are recalled in the third movement of Vivaldi’s Sinfonia, you realise that charm masks genius. However much you may hate the word – and I’m not sure I do – this is curation at its finest. Some of the tonal transitions, such as from Schürmann into Vivaldi (tracks 19 into 20), are exquisitely planned.

This rather haphazard summation has been building towards praise of our mezzo-soprano protagonist: Lea Desandre is the perfect Amazonian. Her storytelling is utterly persuasive, which, married with a gorgeously malleable intonation, makes this an entirely enjoyable listen. There’s a sense of equality, or reciprocity, with which she positions her vocals in the orchestra, making chamber music of these operatic numbers. Desandre explores the sensuous – that final roll of the tongue on ‘toujours’ in Destouches’s ‘Quel coup me réservait la colère céleste?’ is as erotic as a musical split second can get – and, dare I say it, ugly too. Her ferociously raw and frenzied declamation is spot on in Vivaldi’s ‘Scenderò, volerò, griderò’, and the previous movement – that song feathered in birdsong mentioned above – is Desandre perhaps at her most remarkable: melisma as liquid as the babbling brooks she describes, which when shadowed by Gent’s colla parte is stuff more of the forest than of the recording studio.

The final piece – Amazones, composed by Dunford in 2020 – simultaneously makes no sense at all and yet is the logical conclusion to what has been a feast of Baroque music. At first it appears as if Dunford has given himself the last word with bog-standardly doleful lute music. But soon, the strings enter as unravelling vines – ‘Voici la musique d’une forêt’ – then Desandre, first in unpredictably flexible mélodie which then builds – ‘Amazones, Amazones, Amazones! … nous sommes tous Amazones!’ – to anthemic repetition. It’s like one of those loveliest of pop songs, over before they’ve even begun, perfectly measured in indulgence. Final praise, however, must go to Yannis François, whose musicological exploration is the backbone of this stunningly researched and historically rich programme.


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