For many years I was invited to review the International Young Artists’ Early Music Network Competition, held every other year in York. Apart from initially getting to know the young musicians competing in the final, one of the most rewarding aspects was that competitors would keep me in touch with their developing careers, which usually included them sending me their first CD a few years later. The winner of the 2007 competition was Le Jardin Secret (centred on soprano Elizabeth Dobbin) who, rather unusually for competitions, also won the audience prize. In their case, I seem to have missed out their first two CDs, but have new received this, their third, CD.
Jean-Baptiste de Bousset (1662-1725) is not the most prominent of French Baroque composers, but his contribution to the world of solo song was immense, notably with his collection of Airs Sérieux, 850 of which were published between 1690 and 1725. As the liner notes explain, the air sérieux was a sub-genre of the air français, which had its roots in the late 16th century and, in turn, traces its own roots to the earlier air de courthat originated in 1571. Initially intended for performance in the Royal Court, the air sérieux developed into music for intimate settings in private saloons, rather than for the Court, usually arranged by, and for women.
The CD starts very quietly with the gentle sounds of a theorbo before the opening call to the Muse of Music, O toy, qui presides aux chants before a lively shepherd’s song and a further selection of amorous and bucolic texts. The accompaniments to most of the airs are two theorbos and a viola da gamba, instruments specified by Bousset, with occasional use of a guitar and two further viols, the latter in six instrumental works that help to break up the sequence of relatively short songs. It is sung in historical French. There is a wide range of moods expresses, most comparatively subdued, such as the evocation of the ‘Charming Night’ in Nuit charmante, and the later J’aime à revoir ces bois et ces Ruisseaux, which opens with the steady tread of a descending bass line.
Elizabeth Dobbin has an extraordinary voice, with rock-steady intonation, crystal-clear clarity and a very unusual ability in ornamentation, notably in her ability to apply a proper trill to a melodic line. This is something that, surprisingly, very few singers can do with any conviction, with many relying on vibrato. To an extent, that is what Elizabeth Dobbins seems to do, but the precision and control with which she applies that vibrato is exemplary. Whether in the traditional example of a long-held note that slowly resolves into a vibrato ornament towards the end, or in the tiny added twiddles that enliven French music of this era, her ornaments are always an integral part of the melodic line, rather than being noticeably applied on top of that line, as can so often be heard.