Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683 - 1764)
Les Fêtes d’Hébé (1739)
Dessus - Sophie Daneman /Sarah Connolly/Maryseult Wieczorek/Gaelle Mechaly
Haute-contres - Jean-Paul Fouchécourt/Paul Agnew
Basses - Luc Coadou/Thierry Felix/Matthieu Lecroart/Laurent Slaars
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
rec. 21-28 January 1997, Salle Wagram, Paris
ERATO 2564 65887-3 [74.47 + 74:57]
Robert Hugill approved of William Christie’s recording of Zoroastre (see review), and with hardly if any competition when it comes to a complete recording of Rameau’s Les Fêtes d’Hébé making a recommendation of this release has to be the easiest task on the planet. There are a few suites-from recordings including another Erato disc from John Eliot Gardiner along with a suite from Dardanus, but these compete on different territory.This particular recording won the Gramophone 1998 Best Early Opera award as well, doing no harm at all to the reputation of William Christie and Les Arts Florissants.
The work is an example of a highly popular 18th century French genre, the Opéra-ballet. There is a loose narrative in the piece, but in essence each ‘entrée’ is a kind of vignette, and there would have been little need for the sensitive aristocracy to tire themselves out trying to follow complicated plot lines as the gods on Mount Olympus went through a sequence of scenes involving allegories about poetry, a sacrifice, a battle, consultation of the Oracle, a marriage, Mercury stirring everything up just when we thought it had all been resolved and your standard lively happy ending.
As you would expect from a classic early-music performance of this kind we have crisp harpsichord textures, tight string ensemble and recorders providing upper wind contrast, bassoons for added depth and rousing horns for extra drama, and percussion for some of the more energetic dances. Of course the singers are a vital element, and this is a very strong cast indeed. Pure-sounding but full-blooded singing from the sopranos in the early stages sets the tone, and the men are all very good as well. It hardly seems fair to pick out favourites, and the articulation is so good you could almost imagine being able to understand and follow the texts just by listening. These are unfortunately not given in the booklet, and other than a synopsis in English, French and German there is precious little else other than a full track listing, though the synopsis does throw in a few nuggets of extra information about some of Rameau’s own sources for the work. William Christie’s team included long-term working relationships with excellent singers such as Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, and the synergy between all involved is palpable.
Rameau’s score is packed full of gorgeous music, and if you want to sample some go to the top of CD 2, where the Oracle goes through dances both mournful and fun-filled to predict Iphise’s happy future. There is a stunning sopranino recorder in the Gavottes, some bagpipes in the Musette numbers further on in Scène 6, and some delicious wind ensemble work to go with it. The final miniature Contradanse is certainly worth waiting for, but in reality every number is its own highlight. The musical equivalent of a sophisticated variety act, with large numbers of relatively short, contrasting pieces, one can understand why this kind of work would have been all the rage in 1739. Superbly recorded, the whole thing is a French baroque delight from start to finish.  

Dominy Clements
A French baroque delight from start to finish.