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Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
The Opera Collection
Contents below review
rec. 1972–2002, various locations
ERATO 2564 636487 [27 CDs: c. 32:00:00]

There are some composers whose music puts me in a good mood right away. Handel, Purcell, and the great French baroque composers, Lully and Rameau. These latter composers specialized in operas, and this budget box set celebrates the 250th anniversary of Rameau's birth. With twelve operas (not all complete), and one disc which is a series of orchestral suites for a ballet, Rameau fans, and those new to his work, will find much to enjoy.

There are two main specialists in performing and recording the work of this French composer: William Christie and Mark Minkowski, both of whom are represented here, but whose best work is, alas, on other labels. Christie notably spearheaded a revival of both Rameau and, more broadly, French Baroque opera, with his 1991 recording of Les Indes galantes for Harmonia Mundi. Mark Minkowski has recorded a number of Rameau operas on Deutsche Grammophon’s Archiv label. The recordings here by those two conductors are not in any way lesser than their later output, but it’s fair to say that many of their later recordings benefit from more experience with these works.

If you’re not familiar with Rameau’s operas, the one word I’d use for them is smooth. The lush orchestration, the flowing melodies make them delightful to listen to. However, there are far fewer arias that stand out than, say, in Handel. With Rameau, it’s more about a tone, rather than a collection of songs, which some of Handel’s operas sound like. There are more choruses and dances than in the Italian opera of the time, and recitatives are more than just people speaking and filling in the spaces between the music. Listening to a Rameau opera is more about taking in a whole work than enjoying specific parts.

Rameau was prolific, writing only operas from 1733 to his death in 1764, and wrote dozens of operas. It’s only in recent decades that we have been able to hear many of them. While some of the recordings here date from the 1970s, the real Rameau boom started in the 1990s, thanks to William Christie. He is represented in this set by Hippolyte et Aricie, Les Fêtes d'Hébé and a disc of extracts from Zéphyre. Christie maintains an extremely coherent orchestra and chose excellent soloists. He is still performing some of these works, such as a production of Hippolyte et Aricie at Glyndebourne in 2013, which was musically impeccable, even if the production was marred by muddled direction and design.

Mark Minkowski is another conductor who has specialized in these works, having recorded four Rameau operas for Archiv, and two in this set, Platée and Les Surprises de l'Amour, which is a suite of dances. His wonderful recording of Platée is available on DVD and Blu-Ray (see our review), and features some outlandish costumes, yet which never flags in interest. Paul Agnew as a frog; that must be seen.

Nicholas McGegan is another conductor with a lot of Rameau under his belt, having recorded for Erato and Harmonia Mundi. He is represented here with Naïs and the one-act Pigmalion. For example, from the first notes of Naïs one can tell that he understands this music; it is alive, vital, full of energy.

John Eliot Gardiner is present with one opera, Les Boréades, from 1990. This was Rameau’s last opera, and while Gardiner never became a true Rameau specialist, he continued to perform Rameau’s music over the years, even doing a Proms concert of Rameau dances in 2007. His recording of Les Boréades contains the vigour and restraint that are hallmarks of Gardiner’s work.
Other conductors show how this music was performed before this type of music was better understood, and original performance practice, and original instruments, became the norm. Some of these recordings are dull and turgid, sounding as though the conductors were trying to play Rameau as though it was Mozart. There are dense strings with no character, no lightness; an overuse of vibrato and vocal technique which simply isn’t right for the music. Nicolas Harnoncourt has the oldest recording here, the 1972 Castor et Pollux, whose sound is very thin and lacking depth; some of the singers are totally wrong for this kind of music. Raymond Leppard conducts Dardanus, from a 1981 recording, which has singers and an orchestra and conductor who play the music as though it’s Mozart. Jean-François Paillard is present with a 1974 recording of Les Indes Galantes, which is probably the best of all these older recordings. The sound is excellent, the chorus fine and the singers capable. The recordings of this vintage have historical value but given the quality of later versions of these works – I’d take Minkowski’s Dardanus over any other version – and the way conductors, singers and musicians have learned how to play this music on its own terms, they serve here as filler.

This is, after all, a budget box set. For the price of, say, two operas, you get a dozen plus one disc of orchestral suites. Enough of the recordings in this set are worth listening to so that you’ll get a good overview of Rameau’s music, in case you want more. Christie’s Zoroastre and Hippolyte et Aricie are excellent, as are Minkowski’s Platée and Les Surprises de l’Amour, McGegan’s Naïs and Pigmalion, and Gardiner’s Les Boréades. If, like me, you already have a lot of his operas, this set will fill some gaps. Either way, for less than £40, you can’t go wrong.

Warner Classics, who now own Erato, get negative points for having such a scant booklet. There are cast-lists, but little else; no list of tracks, no timings, and, of course, no texts. There is no CD-ROM with more information, nor is there a link to texts on the label’s website. It’s a shame that record labels no longer care about such things.

Kirk McElhearn

Hippolyte et Aricie
Anne Maria Panzarella (Aricie), Mark Padmore (Hippolyte), Mireille Delunsch (Prêtresse de Diane), Lorraine Hunt (Phèdre), Katalin Károlyi (Oenone), Eirian James (Diane), Yann Beuron (Arcas), Laurent Naouri (Thésée), François Piolino (Tisiphone), Nathan Berg (Pluton/Neptune/Jupiter), Patricia Petibon (Une Prêtresse/Une Bergère), Yann Beuron (Mercure), Gaëlle Méchaly (Une Matelote/L'Amour)
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
Les Indes Galantes
Gerda Hartman (Hébé/Emilie/Zaïre), Philippe Huttenlocher (Bellone/Osman/Huascar/Ali/Don Alvar), Jennifer Smith (L'Amour/Phanie/Fatime/Zima), Louis Devos (Valère/Carlos/Damon), Bernard Deletré (Huascar), Isabelle Poulenard (Phanie), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Carlos), John Elwes (Tacmas/Adario)
Orchestre de Chambre «Jean-François Paillard», Orchestre de Chambre «A Coeur Joie» de Valence/Jean-François Paillard
Castor et Pollux
Zeger Vandersteene (Castor), Gérard Souzay (Pollux), Jeanette Scovotti (Télaire), Norma Lerer (Phébé), Rolf Leanderson (Mars), Jacques Villisech (Jupiter), Märta Schéle (Vénus), Zeger Vandersteene (L'Amour), Sven-Erik Alexandersson (Grand Prêtre de Jupiter), Jeanette Scovotti (Minerva)
Wiener Concentus Musicus, Stockholm Kammerkoren/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Les Fêtes d'Hébé
Sophie Daneman, Sarah Connolly, Maryseult Wieczorek, Gaelle Mechaly (dessus), Jean-Paul Fouchecourt, Paul Agnew (haute-contres); Luc Coadou, Thierry Felix, Matthieu Lecroart, Laurent Slaars (basses)
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
Christiane Eda-Pierre (Vénus), Georges Gautier (Dardanus), Roger Soyer (Teucer), Véronique Dietschy (Une Phrygienne), Frederica Von Stade (Iphise), Michael Devlin (Anténor), Jose Van Dam (Isménor)
Choeurs et Orchestre du Théâtre et National de l’Opéra de Paris/Raymond Leppard
Gilles Ragon (Platée), Jennifer Smith (La Folie, Thalie), Guy de Mey (Thespis, Mercure), Vincent le Texier (Jupiter, Un Satyre), Guillemette Laurens (Junon), Véronique Gens (L’Amour, Clarine)
Ensemble Vocal Francoise Herr and Les Musiciens de Louvre/Marc Minkowski
Michael Goldthorpe (Pygmalion), Marilyn Hill Smith (Céphise/Statue), Anne-Marie Rodde (Amour)
English Bach Festival Baroque Orchestra and Singers/Nicholas McGegan
Les Surprises de l'Amour
Les Musiciens du Louvre/Marc Minkowski
Lynda Russell (Naïs), Ian Caddy (Jupiter/Télénus/Neptune), Richard Jackson (Tirésie), Jennifer Smith (Flore/Une Bergère), John Tomlinson (Pluton), Brian Parsons (Astérion), Antony Ransome (Palémon), Ann Mackay (Une Jeune Bergère)
English Bach Festival Baroque Orchestra and Singers/Nicholas McGegan
Mark Padmore (Zoroastre), Gaëlle Méchaly (Amelite), Matthieu Lecroart (Zopire, La Vengeance), Eric Martin Bonnet (Oromases, Ariman), Nathan Berg (Abramane), Anna-Maria Panzarella (Erinice), Francois Bazola (Narbanor), Stephanie Revidat (Cephie)
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
La Guirlande
Sophie Daneman (soprano), Paul Agnew (tenor)
William Christie
Zéphyre (extracts)
Gaëlle Méchaly (Zéphyre), Rebecca Ockenden (Cloris), Sophie Decaudaveine (Diane), Rebecca Ockenden (Flore)
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
Les Boréades
Jennifer Smith (Alphise), Anne-Marie Rodde (Sémire), Edwige Bourdy (Polymnie), Martine March (Une Nymphe), Philip Langridge (Abaris), John Aler (Calisis), Jean-Philippe Lafont (Borée), Gilles Cachemaille (Borilée), François Le Roux (Adamas), Stephen Varcoe (Apollon), Elisabeth Priday (L'Amour)
Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner