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Comédie et Tragédie - Volume 1
Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687)
Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (LWV 43), comédie-ballet: suite for orchestra [18:12]
Jean-Féry REBEL (1666-1747)
Les Elémens, simphonie nouvelle [24:33]
Marin MARAIS (1656-1728)
Alcyone, tragédie en musique: suite for orchestra [24:17]
Tempesta di Mare/Gwyn Roberts, Richard Stone
rec. 2014, Gould Recital Hall, Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN0805 [67:04]

Opera played a key role in music life in the baroque era. The genre was born in Italy, and was rapdily embraced across Europe, with the exception of England. In the 1640s Italian operas, written by Luigi Rossi and Francesco Cavalli respectively, were performed in Paris, but soon France established a tradition of its own. The man largely responsible for the development of French opera was an Italian, Giovanni Battista Lulli, later known as Jean-Baptiste Lully. In order to create a pure French opera he actively tried to repel any Italian influence. As a result Marc-Antoine Charpentier, arguably the composer with the greatest theatrical skills of all French composers, was prevented from developing into a major composer of opera because of his strong Italian leanings.

Lully regularly worked with the playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière. In 1672 they clashed and Molière the began working with Lully's arch-enemy Charpentier. One of the fruits of the cooperation between Lully and Molière was Le bourgeois gentilhomme, a comédie-ballet which received its first performance in 1670. It was written at the request of Louis XIV who in 1669 had been visited by the Turkish ambassador which stirred the Sun King's interest in his culture. This element was to be included in a comédie-ballet and is represented here in the Cérémonie des Turcs. The subject of various 'national styles' comes to the fore in the Ballet des nations. The inclusion of ballets was one of the features of French opera, partly because Louis XIV was a great lover of dancing and sometimes actively took part in performances of opéra-ballets.

Marin Marais was a pupil of Lully and developed into one of the greatest players of the viola da gamba of his time. He composed four operas in the genre of the tragédie en musique which show the influence of Lully. Alcyone has become his best-known work for the theatre, and has been recorded complete. However, in Lully's time a tradition had been established to perform instrumental pieces from an opera separately. German composers were inspired by this tradition and started to compose ouvertures - also known as orchestral suites - as independent works, without any theatrical context. Today suites from French operas are quite popular as the many recordings of such suites from the operas by Rameau show. Instrumental pieces from Marais' Alcyone are also regularly played today, and last year I reviewed here a disc with four suites from this opera by Le Concert des Nations, directed by Jordi Savall (review). The present disc includes a much shorter extract, but part of it is the most famous piece from this opera, the Tempête, in which a wind machine is used.

Another feature of Marais' opera was the participation of a double bass, the first time this instrument had been included in the French opera orchestra. That brings us to an important issue in regard to performances of French orchestral music of the 17th and early 18th centuries. It’s hardly given any attention in the liner-notes. Robert A. Green refers to the Vingt-quatre Violons, the string band of the French court and states that it "included instruments we would now identify as violas and cellos, as well as violins". He should have specified the difference in line-up between the French orchestra of the time and the common modern baroque orchestra of today, including Tempesta di Mare. Until the early decades of the 18th century French orchestral scores were divided into five string parts. These were known as dessus de violon, haute-contre de violon, taille de violon, quinte - mostly played by the viola da gamba - and basse de violon. The dessus de violon is identical with the violin, the basse de violons is comparable with the cello, although larger and with a lower tessitura, something between the cello and the double bass. The three other instruments played the parts which today are mostly taken by the second violins and the violas. Thanks to a stronger presence of the middle voices such a scoring results in a mellower and fuller sound than the common scoring of baroque orchestras of the German or Italian type. That is one reason that Savall's recording of Marais' instrumental pieces is more satisfying than the Tempesta di Mare's performance.

Jean Féry Rebel composed just one opera, Ulysse, which didn't go down all that well. He had much more success with his dance music, for instance Les caractères de la danse. His most famous work is Les Elémens which he called a simphonie nouvelle. The novelty was especially the opening movement, Le cahos which depicts the chaos before the various elements, "subject to invariable laws, took their prescribed place in the natural order", as the preface says. It opens with a chord consisting of all the notes of the D minor scale. Although it is basically scored for strings and bc in four parts, there are indications that wind instruments, such as flutes, oboes and bassoons, may be used in some of the movements. The two upper parts are for dessus, whereas the third part has the indication haute-contre et taille. The traditional scoring in five parts has disappeared, but this indication suggests that Rebel still expected the use of the traditional French instruments in these middle voices.

The difference in line-up between Tempesta di Mare and what was common practice at the time is one of the minuses of this recording, but is not decisive. I have heard recordings of this kind of repertoire with a comparable line-up which were more satisfying. The suites by Lully and Marais were written for the theatre. That is reflected by the rather dry acoustic of this recording, which suits the music. It is not reflected by the way the music is played, I'm afraid. The performances are rather tame and bland, and not very theatrical. Rebel's Les Elémens comes off best by far, whereas the Lully is the most disappointing part of this disc.

This is the first volume in a series. I am curious what the second volume will include. I sincerely hope it will be more engaging and theatrical than the first.

Johan van Veen

Previous reviews: Brian Wilson and Dominy Clements


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