Jean-Baptiste Lully was one of the most influential composers in music history. He dominated the music scene in France in the second half of the 17th century. His fame continued even beyond his death in 1687. He also had a host of followers outside France, in particular in Germany. Various composers were attracted to his instrumental writing, and started to compose orchestral overtures in his style. The great popularity of the instrumental movements from his operas is reflected in the various publications of such pieces, for instance by Estienne Roger in Amsterdam. This disc presents instrumental suites from three of Lully’s operas. They are from collections which appeared between 1697 and 1712.
The three suites don't include all the instrumental music from the operas in question. These span a period of 11 years: Atys was performed in 1676, Phaëton in 1683 and Armide in 1687. To the word airs in the titles of his editions Roger added à jouer to indicate that these don't refer to vocal items, but rather toinstrumental pieces of a specific nature. In the suite from Armide we find an air pour les flûtes et violons, and in Phaëton a petit air pour les Égyptiens. Also notable is that every suite includes several préludes. These were used as the introduction to an act - Lully's operas are usually in a prologue and five acts - or a scene.
There is a significant difference between Roger's publications and the original scorings. In France the opera orchestra was divided into five parts: dessus (violins), haute-contre, taille, quinte (violas of different sizes) and basses (basse de violon). The line-up of orchestras in other parts of Europe was different. The violins were mostly split into two different parts, the violas which in the 17th century were mostly also split into two, were increasingly reduced to just one part, and the Italian cello was deployed for the bass line. In addition they often included a double-bass or violone, whereas the French orchestra omitted an octaving 16-foot bass. In Roger’s collections the original scoring was adapted to suit the common line-up of orchestras outside France. What we have here is a performance of Lully's orchestral music from a non-French perspective.
Suites like these were mostly played by court orchestras. These greatly differed in size. This is taken into account in this recording. The disc opens with the suite from Phaëton which is played with a large ensemble of 10 violins (5/5), four violas, two basses de violon and violone, plus three transverse flutes, three oboes, two bassoons and harpsichord. Next follows the suite from Atys which is played in a chamber music scoring of two violins, viola, basse de violon, violone, two recorders, two oboes, bassoon, theorbo and harpsichord. The last suite, from Armide, is played with a medium-size ensemble, with seven violins (4/3), three violas, three basses de violon, pairs of recorders, oboes and bassoons, theorbo and harpsichord. This gives some impression of how Lully's music could have been played outside France.
There is just one questionable aspect, and that is the use of the basse de violon. This instrument, also referred to as the bass violin, was used across Europe during the 17th century. Outside France it was increasingly replaced by the cello. Only in France and England was it still used in the early decades of the 18th century. As the editions of Roger appeared from 1697 onwards it seems anachronistic to include the basse de violon in performances which pretend to reflect performance practice outside France in the first half of the 18th century.
That is the only thing which I can complain about. I have greatly enjoyed these performances which bring out the splendour and colourful nature of these suites. It is easy to understand why so many non-French musicians and composers - and not to forget, their employers - were so fascinated by the music which was originally performed at the court of Versailles which was imitated across Europe as well. The character pieces like the Entrées des Furies (Phaëton) are played just as well as the kind of pieces French music was famous for, like the chaconne (Phaëton) or the passacaille (Armide), and a beautiful piece like Sommeil (sleep) from Atys. Both string and wind players do an excellent job here.
Every reason for lovers of baroque orchestral music to be enthusiastic about this disc.
Johan van Veen