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Comédie et Tragédie - Vol. 1
Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687)
Suite from ‘Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme’, LWV 43 (1670) [18:12]
Jean-Féry REBEL (1666-1747)
Les Élémens (1737-38) [24:33]
Marin MARAIS (1656-1728)
Suite from ‘Alcyone’ (1706) [24:17]
Tempesta di Mare/Gwyn Roberts; Richard Stone
rec. 9-11 June 2014, Gould Recital Hall, Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.

This is the first of a two-disc series from Tempesta di Mare (also known as the Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra) which take on late 17th French instrumental music from the theatre. There has been a long European tradition of taking ‘Suites’ of music which could be used outside the theatre. For the period in which Lully, Marais, and Rebel worked there were plenty of overtures, dances, illustrative interludes and intermezzos on which to draw.

Jean-Baptiste Lully was commissioned by King Louis XIV to compose a comédie-ballet on Molière’s play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme for the visit of the Turkish ambassador in 1669. The play is about one M. Jourdain whose attempts to rise above his middle-class background see him believing that he part of a Turkish ceremony. This is Lully’s opportunity to use exotic percussion and Turkish national flavours in music to please the ambassador. There is also a Spanish dance with clapping, and the whole thing ends with a very nice Chaconne.

Both Marin Marais and Jean-Féry Rebel were pupils of Lully, and while working within the particular demands of the court Rebel’s ballet Les Élémens stands out in particular for some remarkable music, portraying each of the four elements during the world’s creation. I last came across this piece in a CPO re-release with L’Orfeo Barockorchester conducted by Michi Gaigg (review). The impact of that incredible opening to Le Chaos is greater in this case, the larger scale of the orchestral sound delivering more scary emphasis, though with the strings drowning out the flutes and with less stereo width in the recording. If you want a more realistic sonic picture then this Chandos version is better. Although it won’t blow you out of your seat in quite the same way it is still pretty stunning as a musical statement, and you can hear the winds. None of the subsequent movements approach this striking feel for modernity, but Tempesta di Mare’s detailed and rhythmically precise performances are superbly executed, and the quirky bassoon is deserving of a mention.

Marais’s Alcyone is a tragic opera, following in Lully’s tradition of tragédie en musique. The tale is a fairly typical one of disaster and celebration, with sinister magical influences ultimately foiled by a beneficent deity. I haven’t paid much attention to Marais in the past, but this is cracking music, full of variety in terms of melodic and harmonic interest, and with a wind-machine in the penultimate movement Tempête, what’s not to love. There seem to be hardly any other recordings of this suite around, and Tafelmusik’s House of Dreams (review) only has eight movements to the thirteen on this recording. A comparison does however point out where Tempesta di Mare’s weakness is, with the sheer energy and colour in Tafelmusik’s performance generating a more compelling view of the music. Recorded in a small-sounding acoustic, this Chandos disc no doubt approaches a greater reality in performances which may well have taken place in the more intimate chambers of the royal palace rather than a vast concert hall.

Philadelphia-based baroque music ensemble Tempesta di Mare is a great band and I will be looking out for the second volume in this set, but with no sense of improvisatory freedom or much spontaneous explosiveness they sound very ‘safe’. You can very much delight in this excellent music, but may not find it sets your blood racing as can other performances of comparable repertoire.

Dominy Clements
Previous review : Brian Wilson


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