Le Concert Royal de la Nuit
After the Ballet Royal de la Nuit, danced by Louis XIV on 23 February 1653 in the Salle du Petit-Bourbon, Paris
Reconstructed by Sébastien Daucé
Ensemble Correspondances/Sébastien Daucé
rec. January-February 2015, MC2, Grenoble
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC952223.24 [77:24 + 76:38]
Everyone knows that Louis XIV of France was nicknamed "The Sun King", but this recording recreates the very event where the legend began. The Sun King title grew to describe the magnificence with which the adult King surrounded himself but not so many people know that the nickname first emerged when he danced the part of The Sun in a ballet, staged in Paris in 1653. In this release, Ensemble Correspondances do us the inestimable good turn of recreating that musical night, and it's a must-hear, both for musical and historical reasons.
The ballet was commissioned by the King himself, and traces the watches of the night, from dusk to dawn, via various allegorical and mythical figures, culminating in the arrival of the sun at dawn, as danced by the 15-year old King himself. Most of the dancers were of a similar age to the King, so the evening carries an unmistakeable air of renewal and revival, coming as it did after the final defeat of the Fronde rebellion.
Of all the composers involved, we can only identify one with certainty, Jean de Cambefort. He wrote only a very small proportion of the music. Cavalli and Rossi have been linked to it, too, but with less confidence. The names of the rest have been lost, subsumed into the greater glory of the Sun King's enterprise. Either way, much of the instrumental music was lost soon after the performance. Sébastien Daucé himself has done a great job of musical archaeology to recreate the score as closely as possible to what might have been heard that night. It's so convincing and winning that you never question its authenticity.
It being a ballet score, most of the numbers are purely orchestral, but the band of instrumentalists in Ensemble Correspondances is fantastic. They are so utterly immersed in the sound-world of the French Baroque that, at times, it’s easy to forget that you’re listening to 21st century musicians. There is, for one thing, a marvellously juicy quality to the string playing, evident from the very opening bars. This places the listener unmistakably in the France of the late 17th century. That string tone is supplemented by slightly reedy winds, swaggering percussion and an assertive continuo troupe that underpin everything brilliantly. The instrumental dances are repeatedly delightful, with special touches too numerous to name, but I really enjoyed the recorders and piquant musettes of the pastoral hunt scenes, as well as the piccolos and growling basses of the Hercules scene. The dream sequences in the fourth part are also beautifully evocative, and the climactic appearance of the sun at the end carries off all the weight of expectation.
There are, however, several vocal moments, and the singers of the Ensemble are equally excellent. They are so good because they immerse themselves totally inside what the project is trying to accomplish, often sacrificing their own fame in the service of the whole. As Night, for example, Lucile Richardot has a beautiful, limpid quality to her voice that fits the bill perfectly, but then you never hear her again except for the Venus scene. Likewise, Renaud Brès demonstrates all the fruity elegance of French bass singing at its finest, but he only appears for a few minutes as Hercules. It is, in fact, in the Venus and Hercules scene that the music comes closest to being opera, but primarily it’s a collection of vignettes rather than a single narrative, and it’s, therefore, more uniquely interesting for that reason. The choruses are a model of Gallic refinement.
Harmonia Mundi also get a special gold star for their presentation, which is on the level of Jordi Savall's special projects for Alia Vox. The two CDs are enclosed within a hardback book which contains a series of top-notch historical essays (in several languages, including English), together with musicological notes, a detailed run-down of the scenario and many illustrations, both of the scene of the ballet and of the contemporary royal court. You also get the full sung texts with translations.
So this release is a welcome piece of musical archaeology that brings back from the dead one of the most famous ballet sequences of the ancien régime whose details had, nevertheless, been long forgotten. Both fascinating and compelling, this is a release of equal musical and historical worth.