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Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
La Princesse de Navarre, interludes for the comédie-ballet by Voltaire

Marilyn Hill-Smith, Eiddwen Harrhy, Frances Chambers, Judith Rees (soprano), Michael Goldthorpe (tenor), Peter Savidge (baritone), Ian Caddy, Richard Wigmore (bass)
English Bach Festival Singers and Baroque Orchestra/Nicholas McGegan
Recorded in March 1979 at St Barnabas Church, London ADD
WARNER ELATUS 2564-60536-2 [55:47]


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Although nowadays Jean-Philippe Rameau is considered the greatest French baroque composer, he only came to real fame when he was already fifty years old. Then, in 1733, his first 'tragédie en musique', Hippolyte et Aricie, was performed in public. This was followed later that decade by Castor et Pollux (1737) and Dardanus (1739) and two 'opéra-ballets', Les Indes galantes (1735) and Les Fêtes d'Hébé (1739). By the 1740s his reputation was such that there was no other composer who could be invited to write the main music to be performed during the festivities at the occasion of the marriage of Dauphin Louis, son of King Louis XV, to Marie-Thérèse of Spain in February 1745. The festivities in Versailles, which lasted a month, started and ended with music by Rameau. The events started with the 'comédie-ballet' La Princesse de Navarre, which Voltaire, who had written the text, described as bringing together "the varied delights of declaimed speech, dancing and music". The whole thing lasted about three ands a half hours, half of which consisted of music, mostly for dancing. This disc contains all the music Rameau contributed to it.

Voltaire wasn't impressed by the way the spoken dialogue was performed. The theatre was so large that the actors looked very small and the dialogue couldn't be heard properly. But he was highly satisfied by Rameau's music. The Mercure de France wrote that Rameau "has perfectly sustained the author's view of the text, and the work's success has lived up to the reputation of this celebrated composer, justifiably renowned as the foremost in his art, not only in France, but in Europe as well".

The text is about Mars and Love joining forces. The different characters in the play, like the Warriors, a Frenchman, two Spaniards, announce their eagerness to follow their banners, "in pleasure and in war". The chorus sings: "Glory forever calls us, under her banner we march, burning with ardour most fervent for Louis, for Love and Mars."

But more than his settings of the text it is the instrumental music which impresses. It takes almost two thirds of the whole composition by Rameau. It is his first work in which the overture is written in the Italian style, with three movements.

It is also the instrumental music which gets the best performance on this disc. Even though today's baroque orchestras produce a richer sound and realise Rameau's dances with greater flexibility this recording is still worth listening to.

The vocal items are far less satisfying. Most singers are not at home in this kind of music, or even baroque music in general. They use a far too wide vibrato and lack the subtlety this music asks for. In the duet 'Amour, dieu charmant' the voices don't blend well. The singing is often rather stiff and rigid. In the air 'Non, le plus grand empire' one hardly notices this is a menuet. Since the booklet doesn't indicate which singer takes which role it is impossible to be more specific in regard to the performances of the individual soloists.

Strangely enough there is no more recent recording of Rameau's music for La Princesse de Navarre. As long as that is the case we should be grateful that this recording is reissued at budget price. But considering its deficiencies, in particular in the singing department, we have to hope someone will make a more stylish and up-to-date recording of this fine music in the near future.

Johan van Veen

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