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Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687)
Divertissements I-III
Guillemette Laurens (mezzo-soprano)
Capriccio Stravagante/Skip Sempé
rec. May 1990, Église Allemande, Paris DDD
DHM 82876601542 [61'18]


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Lullyís importance in the history of French baroque is well recognised, yet his music is relatively unheard. Perhaps the genre of the pure French style, in Lullyís time much less influenced by Italy, has still to find a wide listening public. That said, the superficially more austere clavécinistes like Louis Couperin and even díAnglebert seem to figure more in concert and recordings. Considering the vogue for Rameauís operas, it is perhaps surprising that those of Lully, the first major composer of French opera, have not had more attention.

Skip Sempé has put together three Divertissements from Lullyís chamber music and airs, going back to original sources in the absence of modern performing editions. The music is in five parts and Sempé, employs two violins, a viola, a viola da gamba, a cello and a harpsichord (he very reasonably argues for mixing the violin and viol families). Vocal items make up about a quarter of the pieces and half the music on the CD.

So the signs were good and it is certainly true that Lullyís music needs recording. However, listening pleasure didnít measure up to the conception, for several reasons. Firstly, although the instrumentation looks good on paper and Sempé makes a good case for it, the sound was both top and bottom heavy, i.e., there seemed to be a hole in the middle. This impression may have partly been due to the second problem, the sourness of the violinsí sound which was difficult to ignore. Thirdly, the airs and recitatives, sung in Guillemette Laurensís rich mezzo were almost wholly melancholy. Of course, it seems crass to expect otherwise when this is merely a reflection of the taste of the age but I could not help looking forward to some instrumental jollity to dispel the air of self-pity. Regrettably, the sound of those violins soon put paid to my relief. I also found the tempos sluggish; the music could have danced more.

If you are a wholly committed Lullian, and you liked the abrasion of baroque violins before the modern players began to get a good sound out of them, and you can bear to play just a few numbers at a time, then you might like this CD. My advice is, give it a miss and buy Jordi Savallís compendium of Suites on Alia Vox instead. Not chamber music, it is true, but with its colourful textures and vitality, a much better introduction to Lullyís music.

Roger Blackburn


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