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Les Menus Plaisirs de Louis XIV HARMONIA MUNDI HMX2908717.26 [10 CDs: 12:29:43]
One of 2015’s musical anniversaries which was easier to miss was the 300th anniversary of the death of Louis XIV of France. The Sun King was both an inspiration to and patron of a huge variety of composers and the arts were central to his image of kingship. Thus it's absolutely appropriate to commemorate his death with a lavish musical box, featuring composers who worked for him in a huge variety of genres.
Harmonia Mundi have raided their back catalogue and provided a range of top quality recordings, many of which have been excerpted from complete or at least fuller sets. The discs are organised in pairs: Discs 1 and 2 showcase life before Versailles; Discs 3 and 4 are “An ordinary day at Versailles” (a phrase, if ever there was one, that cries out for irony); Discs 5 and 6 are for His Majesty’s Entertainments, while Discs 7 and 8 contain a complete performance of Lully’s Armide. The set finishes in grand style with Pomp and Circumstance on Discs 9 and 10. As well as being of the highest musical quality, the set is also expertly curated, and deserves praise on that front. Each pair of discs is enclosed in its own case, while the classy booklet contains some excellent historical and musicological essays, together with lavish illustrations of the king and his court. Sadly, there are no sung texts - would it really be too much to ask to get them offered online? - but the information given is good, even if explicit links to Louis XIV are a little thin at times.
Life before Versailles contains some music from the king’s early years, including extracts from Harmonia Mundi’s equally excellent anniversary set, Le Concert Royal de la Nuit. We begin, however, with excerpts from Rocetta's Solemn Vespers, which are beautifully played and have a wonderful feel of the dance to them; not at all like the Central European ecclesiastical settings we're perhaps more used to. Lully's Noces de Village is an early example of a comic ballet, and it's scored for a small combination of winds instruments. The better known suite from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme has a very similar sound-picture, and both are very appealing, if rather slight. Charpentier's music for Le Malade Imaginaire is altogether more substantial, and its full complement of trumpets and drums really grabs you by the ears when heard straight after the Lully. Charpentier's music bristles with energy and a real sense of dramatic flair. Les Arts Florissants play it as though on their home territory - which, I suppose, they are. The singers are all totally stylish, and there is historical importance to this recording too, as it's probably the first modern recreation of all the music that Moliére and Charpentier originally conceived for the work. The notes will tell you more; and it's worth reiterating at this juncture that the musicological and historical value of the notes throughout is very high indeed.
One composer who appears a lot - but who, I must confess, I did not know before encountering this set - is Michel-Richard de Lalande. He is one of the battalion of composers who gained employment out of the Sun King's court, and he first crops up on this set during the Ordinary Day at Versailles pair of discs. He was a discovery I was delighted to make. His Miserere mei Deus, presumably sung at the Versailles Chapel, encapsulates all that is good about the French Baroque, but in a manner much less ostentatious than Lully. His word-settings are graceful and his instrumental accompaniments are delectably chosen, modelling the very height of French taste, but there remains a devotional element to the whole. It's aesthetically beguiling, but never beautiful merely for its own sake: instead it retains a devotional aspect that I found won me over easily. On the other hand, Super Flumina Babilonis, one of the motets for which he is most famous, sounds like a piece for the theatre rather than the church. It's bitingly dramatic, almost self-referentially so at times, and I repeatedly thought of the theatrical flourishes of a Handel oratorio while listening to it. His two Symphonies pour les soupers du Roy, surely the highest quality background music to have emerged before Mozart, are played with delicious elegance and élan by Le Simphonie du Marais. They emerge as an interesting French alternative to the baroque suite, standing as a nice Gallic contrast to the more familiar Bachian mould.
On a more intimate level, Marais' Sonnerie is a remarkable piece of contrapuntal development on the smallest of scales: an ostinato built out of only three notes. After this, the extract from Charpentier's Actéon sounds a little tacked-on, but that's one of the consequences of a compendium like this, I suppose. No explanation is given of the intriguingly titled Fat Kate's Wedding, but the London Oboe Band play it very well. Couperin's Superbe Trio Sonata is played with delicacy and gives way to the arrestingly different sound of the baroque guitar for Robert de Visée's D minor suite.
While still musically worthy, the least interesting pair of discs for me was the third: The King's Entertainments. After a couple of vocal numbers (featuring the unlovely counter-tenor of René Jacobs), the extracts from Couperin's Pièces de Clavecin are played rather unimaginatively and by-the-book, though I enjoyed the transverse flute of the two Concerts Royaux. The viola da gamba is played with flexibility and energy in Marin Marais' Suite, but the disc was rather bland for my tastes. Things perk up when we get into the King's dancing music. That disc is a hotch-potch of lots of different composers and styles, organised along the lines of the style of dance: Entrées, Suites, Passacaglias, Chaconnes and so on. Played on the delightful Baroque Harp with remarkable skill by Andrew Lawrence-King, it's a fantastic window into the court's cultural world. The sheer variety of what's on offer gives you a tiny insight into the cultural magnet that Versailles became.
You couldn't really do a set like this without touching on opera, and the treat we are given is a complete performance of Lully's Armide, his Tragédie Lyrique of 1686. It's Herreweghe's second - and, I'm told, better - recording, and it sound marvellous. As in the Campra Requiem below, the sound of La Chapelle Royale is perfect for this work, infused as it is with Gallic élan and a refined touch to the rhythms, as well as an open, transparent sound that allows the music to breathe in an utterly natural way. Herreweghe conducts it as to the manner born, with the pacing natural and the rhythms never allowed to get too caught up in their own archness. The dances and divertissements are a special (and predictable) delight, and the vocal performances are top notch, too. Guillemette Laurens sings Armide with equal measures of stridency and vulnerability, and we as an audience are torn between shunning her and sympathising with her. Many of the choric roles are taken very ably by a before-she-was-famous Véronique Gens. Bernard Deletré successfully treads a very fine line, as only a French bass can, between authoritative grandeur and winsome elegance. Howard Crook even convinces as an haute-contre, and while it’s true that without a libretto they don't make it easy for you, the booklet's (mostly) detailed synopsis makes it fairly easy to grasp what is going on.
The final pair of discs - Pomp and Circumstance - are, in many ways, the most familiar and the most appealing of the set. Charpentier's evergreen Te Deum is given a delectable performance by Les Arts Florissants, emphasising the drama and the excitement of the piece, with some of the movements sounding positively martial, as does pretty much all of Lalande's Concert des Trompettes. Lalande's own Te Deum has a dancerly air to it that is most appealing and is, in some ways, even more theatrical than Charpentier's. It is the darker pieces that are most interesting, however. Campra's Requiem, in Herreweghe's beautifully judged performance, is a wonderful way to end the entire set, but preceding this are Lully and Lalande's setting of the Dies Irae, the section of the Requiem Mass that runs from the Dies Irae to the Pie Jesu. They're both astounding in different ways. Lully's is theatrical and dramatic but in an understated way that gives off the air of being pressed about on all sides, as though the soul was under the very pressure about which it sings. It's remarkably compelling, and very different to Lalande's setting which is more full-bodied and dramatic, played and sung with marvellous flair. This, like so much else in the set, is a wonderful find, and it goes without saying that the attention to detail extends even to the correct French pronunciation of the Latin text.
So this set gets two thumbs up from me, both for musical and historical reasons. It’s also a fantastic bargain, so it definitely qualifies as one to snap up while you have the chance.
CD 1 [76:14] Giovanni ROVETTA: Vespro solenne (extraits/excerpts) [30:02], Cantus Cölln & Concerto Palatino
Le Concert Royal de la Nuit [38:13], Ensemble Correspondences Jean-Baptiste LULLY: Les Nopces de Village (A Village Wedding) [15:21]
Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (The would-be Gentleman) [14:32], London Oboe Band, Paul Goodwin
CD 2 [75:25] Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER: Le Malade imaginaire, Les Arts Florissants, William Christie
Eglogue en musique et en danse [25:48]
Premier intermède [14:49]
Petit opéra impromptu [9:34]
Deuxième intermède [11:14]
Troisième intermède [10:59]
CD 3 [78:56] LULLY: Marche pour la cérémonie des Turcs [1:22], London Oboe Band Michel-Richard de LALANDE: Miserere mei, Deus, S27 [36:36], La Chappelle Royale, Philippe Herreweghe
Super flumina Babilonis [17:48], Les Arts Florissants, William Christie Marin MARAIS: Sonnerie de Sainte-Geneviève du Mont de Paris [8:12], Trio Sonnerie CHARPENTIER: Actéon, opéra de chasse (extraits/excerpts), Les Arts Florissants, William Christie
Scène première [4:50]
Scène cinquième [1:42]
Scène sixième [8:57]
CD 4 [76:14] André Dancian PHILIDOR: Le Mariage de la Grosse Cathos [15:29], London Oboe Band LALANDE: Symphonies pour les Soupers du Roy, La Simphonie de Marais, Hugo Reyne
5e Suite [30:31]
11e Suite, Airs du Ballet de la Paix [13:14] Francois COUPERIN: La superbe, Sonade en trio [7:50], Gli Incogniti, Amandine Beyer Robert de VISÉE: Pièces en Ré Mineur [9:12], Rafael Andia
CD 5 [72:34] Michel LAMBERT: Tout l'univers obéit à l'amour; Air de cour à 5 voix sur un texte de Jean de la Fontaine [2:54], Les Arts Florissants, William Christie DUBUISSON: Plainte sur la mort de Monsieur Lambert (Ballard, 1696) [4:41], René Jacobs Denis GAUTIER: Fantaisie pour luth [1:44], Konrad Junghänel COUPERIN: L'Art de toucher le clavecin [0:56]
Deuxième Livre de Pièces de clavecin [11:22], Christophe Rousset
CD 6 [72:57]
Les Maîtres à danser de Louis XIV 72:49
CDs 7-8 [78:42 + 77:21] LULLY: Armide
Armide: Guillemette Laurens
Renaud: Howard Crook
La Gloire etc: Véronique Gens
Hidraot etc: Bernard Deletré
La Chapelle Royale & Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe
CD 9 [72:17] CHARPENTIER: Te Deum H.146 [24:30], Les Arts Florissants, William Christie LULLY: Dies Irae [18:32], La Chapelle Royale, Philippe Herreweghe LALANDE: Concert de Trompettes [8:26], La Simphonie de Marais
Te Deum [19:53], Les Arts Florissants, William Christie
CD 10 [71:27] LALANDE: Dies irae, S.31 [27:42] André CAMPRA: Messe de Requiem [43:27]