Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683 - 1764) Les Amants trahis Thétis [10:27] Les Amants trahis/ [24:14] Aquilon et Orithie [13:16] Les Berger fidèle [15:02]
Hélène Guilmette (soprano), Philippe Sly (bass-baritone)
Ensemble Clavecin en concert/Luc Beauséjour
rec. 2012, Eglise St-Augustin, Mirabel, Québec, Canada. DDD
Texts and translations from the Analekta website ANALEKTA AN29991 [63:02]
In the second half of the 17th century, when music life in France was dominated by Jean-Baptiste Lully, audiences and composers didn't feel safe to express their liking of Italian music. This changed after the turn of the century. The cello was starting to challenge the dominance of the viola da gamba, and new musical forms made their appearance, such as the solo concerto and the chamber cantata.
The latter became a popular element of concerts taking place in the the salons of aristocrats and the higher echelons of the bourgeoisie. Several composers contributed to the genre, such as Clérambault, Campra and Stuck. Rameau also composed some cantatas, but this part of his oeuvre has been more or less overshadowed by his operas. Rameau saw a clear connection between the two genres. When he started to write operas he could bring his experience in the cantata genre to the task. In 1744 he wrote: "Before undertaking so great a work, it is necessary to have done smaller ones, cantatas, entertainments, and a thousand trifles of the sort that nourish the spirit, kindle the imagination, and gradually make one capable of greater things".
Rameau's oeuvre includes seven cantatas; some which have been attributed to him are now known to be from another pen (La Musette, Diane et Actéon). All the cantatas are for one or two solo voices with instruments: transverse flute, one or two violins, viola da gamba. They usually comprise three pairs of recitatives and arias, but sometimes Rameau extends this basic texture, such as in Les Amants trahis, which includes no fewer than six such pairs. Some of the arias are duets. The title Aquilon et Orithie could suggest a dialogue of two characters, but in fact it is only Aquilon who is speaking, complaining about Orithie's coldness towards him. In the last recitative the protagonist takes the role of a narrator and the closing aria is the moral. Thétis is another solo cantata, but here the protagonist plays two different roles: Neptune and Jupiter, rivals in their love for Thetis. It is one of two cantatas by Rameau - and the only one on this disc - which opens with a prélude.
Considering that Rameau's cantatas are not very well represented on disc this recording should be welcome. However, I am not overly enthusiastic about the performances. There are three issues here. Firstly, the instrumental parts are competently played, but too restrained. True, this is no Italian music - although the influences of the Italian style cannot be overlooked - but Rameau is a theatrical composer and that shines through in all his compositions. A little more passion in the playing of the ensemble Clavecin en concert would not have been amiss. The second issue is the scoring of Les Amants trahis. The characters, Tircis and Damon, are both male. In Italy it was quite usual that a woman sang a male role in opera, but in France this was rejected. Whereas in Italian opera the heroes and especially the title characters were always in the soprano or alto tessitura, in French opera they are often tenors. This explains that the roles in this cantata are scored for hautecontre and bass respectively. In this recording the role of Tircis is sung by Hélène Guilmette, which is rather odd. Moreover - and that is the third issue - Ms Guilmette's singing didn't make me exactly happy as it is largely spoilt by an incessant vibrato. I liked the singing of Philippe Sly better, although I wonder whether he sometimes is a bit too loud, considering that these cantatas were written for domestic performance. However, he brings the right amount of drama to his interpretations, for instance in Thétis in which the strong contrasts between the arias are very well conveyed.
This is certainly an interesting disc and the genius of Rameau is well exposed. However, the performances suffer from some substantial weaknesses.