Michel Lambert, older contemporary and father-in-law of Lully, was Master of the King's Chamber Music under Louis XIV. While Lully is known mainly for his larger-scale works such as operas and religious showpieces, Lambert worked on a more intimate scale to produce among other things the courtly Airs, of which this CD brings us a selection interspersed with a few instrumental pieces by Surintendant Lully. The music is performed by the very talented Belgian instrumental group Musica Favola, with tenor Stephan van Dyck directing and singing the vocal pieces.
After the initial Symphonie by Lully, the tone of the programme is nicely set by the spoken dedication, from Lambert's book of airs, to his teacher Pierre de Niert. This passage amply fulfils the requirement for profoundly insincere obsequiousness that was de rigueur in the era of the Roi Soleil and, what's more, it's delivered by Stephan van Dyck with an entertaining, suitably exaggerated articulation of the aristocratic French pronunciation of the time. If you're familiar with the marvellous Lully/Molière DVD of 'Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme' Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, Comédie-ballet de Molière & Lully / Dumestre, Le Poème Harmonique, Lazar, in which this highly artificial speech mode is brilliantly and mercilessly sent up, you'll know what I mean.
However, there's no insincerity in Lambert's airs, in spite of the courtly format observed. They are melancholy love songs, usually addressed to the likes of Philis, Iris or Silvie, expressing the pain and longing of secret or unrequited love. If that doesn't sound too promising, let me assure you that these are serious works of musical and emotional substance, in many cases expressing a deeply touching sadness. The emotion sometimes reaches an impressive intensity, as for example in 'Iris n'est plus' (track 15), 'Par mes chants tristes et touchants (17) or 'Mes yeux, que vos plaisirs' (20).
Stephan van Dyck delivers all of this in excellent voice and fine French baroque style to match, with impressive mastery of the decorated division sections. His accompaniment varies from a single instrument, such as theorbo, to the rest of his small, finely balanced ensemble. The instrumental pieces by Lully, including a couple of the Chaconnes that were his speciality, are also beautifully done, overflowing with charm in Musica Favola's idiomatic and generously decorated performances; they also add variety to the programme, which otherwise might have suffered from a certain sameness.
Booklet notes are extremely interesting and helpful, and cover art is a further enhancement. This is a disc of minor works, without a doubt, but if you enjoy the byways of the French baroque then you'll probably find this highly attractive music.