Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
Les Surprises de l’amour - transcriptions de Monsieur Hesse (1757-58): Enlèvement d’Adonis [8.26]; Anacréon [19.48]; La Lyre Enchantée [24.02]; Sibaris [14.24]
Monique Zanetti (soprano); Stephen MacLeod (baritone); Jonathan Dunford and Sylvia Abramowitz (basses de violes); Pierre Trocellier (clavecin)
rec. September 2009, chapel of l’Hôpital Notre-Dame de Bon-Secours, Paris
ALPHA 176 [66.43]

I have to say straightaway that no matter how attractive this CD is and how charming the music and no matter how well presented and superb the performances it could well be said that this is a disc for specialists. Even as a Rameau lover myself I’m not sure that I will play this disc that often. I can’t help but think that its rather tasty presentation with a gorgeous portrait of Anne-Henrietta of France by Jean-Marc Nattier (d.1766) on its front and inside is an attempt to disguise a lack of musical interest especially as one of the two essays by Denis Grenier actually tells us about the portrait and its sitter. Then, a sub-heading for this CD is ‘Un picture musica’.

So who is Monsieur Hesse? Ludwig Christian Hesse (1716-1772) was a composer and famous viol player at the court of that wonderfully musical king Frederick the Great. It seems that he had heard one of the sixty or so performances of Les Surprises de lamour in France. So he made a chamber version for two viols that, the excellent and clearly translated booklet essay by Patrick Barbier tells us, ‘must have captivated the Berlin audience”.

Barbier admits that the genesis of the original work is “complicated”. I will not go into it in detail; suffice to say that Les Surprises is an Opéra-Ballet - a curious hybrid from the 1720s-40s. It was very popular at the French Court and its loose form allowed a composer to dabble and alter whenever he fancied as happened with this work. These pieces are ‘entrées’ that is short scenes, which in the case of Sibaris have mostly instrumental participation for dancing. This is attractively accompanied sometimes by tambourine. In the case of Anacréon there’s a more vocal presentation with some ‘to die for’ arias such as ‘Le declin de l’age’ in Anacréon. Perhaps the most captivating of the four entrées is ‘La Lyre Enchantée’. If your knowledge of mythology is hazy the booklet essay offers you a detailed plot-line. L’Enlèvement d’Adonis (The Rape of Adonis) tells of the legendary struggle “between two irreconcilable divinities: Venus, the goddess of love and Diana advocate of modesty and chastity”. Rameau substituted various entrées for the differing performance occasions so the whole history of these pieces is rather complex.

The performances are wonderful and to my ear faultless; Rameau is so ingrained in singers nowadays especially in ornamentation and in the sense of a logical rubato. The viol playing is immaculate and full of contrast in articulation and colour.

As for the beautiful adornment on the booklet of Anne-Henrietta she is seen seated playing a fine-looking seven string viol da gamba. The artist, Nattier, is new to me. A score on the two manual clavecin next to Anne-Henrietta - best seen inside the disc cover - is of Venus and Adonis. Henrietta was the second daughter of Louis XV and probably his favourite. Grenier comments that the “parallel of an image comprising a viol and … music of which Adonis is the hero, with a composition by Rameau transcribed for the chamber where the instrument is centre of the discourse, stands out as being obvious”. So that’s why the illustration was selected.

Barbier in the other essay admits that “Les Surprises de l’Amour’ is not on the same level as ‘Les Indes Galante’ or other great works. It nevertheless “shows Rameau’s skill in the art of depicting very intimate scenes” with tender feelings “expressed in the ariettes”. I would wholeheartedly concur with that sentiment.

So this disc could well appeal despite these various caveats. Anyway, with Rameau you are never far from a happy rustic dance or a melting aria.

Gary Higginson

Attractive and charming music, well presented, superb performances but this is a disc for specialists.