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Claude BABELON (d.1715)
Marche pour les Gardes du Roy [1:05]
Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687)
Prélude de trompettes et de violon en écho (Psyché: Acte V, scène dernière) Églogue en musique (Versailles, 1667 or 1668; LWV39) [1:44]
La Grotte de Versailles: Tragédie-ballet (Paris, Tuileries, 17 January 1671; LWV45) [33:32]
Premier Air pour les Suivants de Mars (Psyché: Acte V, scène dernière) [1:18]
Deuxième Air pour les Suivants de Mars (Psyché: Acte V, scène dernière) [0:46]
George Dandin ou Le Mari Confondu: Comédie en musique (Versailles, 18 July 1668; LWV68) [40:14]
Ensemble Marguerite Louise/Gaétan Jarry
rec. les Salles des Croisades, Versailles, 26-28 February 2020.
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as streamed in 24/96 sound.

The sophisticated courtiers of Versailles, and especially Louis XIV, their Sun King, liked to pretend that the gardens were a rural paradise; in a later generation, Marie Antoinette would play at being a shepherdess there. Despite its magnificence, Versailles was an insanitary place, with courtiers forced to relieve themselves in corners and corridors. Between 1664 and 1666, a cave (the grotte of the title of the main work on this recording) was constructed, where Thetis, the deity of springs, could welcome the Sun every evening. Far from being a simple cave, it was lavishly decorated, and the pastoral entertainment was enhanced by an organ which reproduced the twittering of birds.

The rural myth was related to that of the ‘noble savage’, as evoked in Montaigne’s essay Des Cannibales, which, in turn, influenced Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In the age of Louis XIV, it inspired Rameau’s opera-ballet Les Indes Galantes.

It all seems as artificial to us as the palaces erected by King Ludwig of Bavaria in imitation of Versailles, one of which holds a grotto and ‘Lohengrin’s Lake’, complete with swans, but the pastoral myth was very potent in the renaissance and baroque. If you ever have six months to spare, try reading Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, which grew from a comparatively brief ‘old’ Arcadia to one of those monster books you have always been meaning to read. In seventeenth-century France, you just had to go along with the myth of the Sun King presiding over his pastoral domain.

Even when Poussin punctured the idyll with his painting Et in Arcadia ego, reminding us that death and decay still flourish in the most ideal settings, he had to do so with a painting from inside that tradition. Yet the worm in the pastoral fruit had always been apparent: Arcadia is a barren and uninviting part of Greece, fit only for sheep. Vergil’s Eclogues, which fixed the pastoral in the European tradition, opens with one peasant telling another that it’s all very well for him to lie in the shade of a beech tree singing about fair Amaryllis, when others are being expelled from their land to resettle military veterans.

You can follow the plot of La Grotte de Versailles, such as it is, from the booklet. If you wish, however, you can forget all the fantasy and flummery, and simply enjoy Lully’s music, which is what I did in the end. There is only one other recording (Accord 4618112, La Simphonie du Marais/Hugo Reyne, download only, no booklet). That’s one of a very fine series of Lully’s music recorded by Reyne for the French label Accord. Otherwise, the overture crops up from time to time.

I listened to the Accord recording from Naxos Music Library – they also have the new recording, but only in mp3; I listened to that in 24-bit from Qobuz. Both offer the booklet for the new Gaétan Jarry, but not for the older recording. Both performances do the music proud, so the only consideration is the coupling: the older album is rather short value, at 46 minutes, with just two short additions to La Grotte, so my vote would be for the new Château de Versailles offering.

La Grotte may be described as a tragédie-ballet, with words by Molière – librettist, again, of George Dandin – and Corneille, no less, as well as Lully’s favourite librettist Quinault, but there’s nothing deep and deedy about it. Neither of the recordings makes heavy going of it, simply treating the music for what it is. As this is an audio release, of course, we have to do without the ballet element, but that didn’t affect my enjoyment. If you want ballet, try Rameau’s Les Indes galantes; my favourite DVD/blu-ray, from Christophe Rousset (Alpha) seems to have disappeared, ditto that from Les Arts Florissants (Opus Arte), but there are others.

There’s a bit more of a plot to George Dandin ou Le Mari Confondu, but here again you may well wish to forget that and enjoy some beautiful music, very well performed and recorded. Perhaps many of us will relate more to George Dandin, where, though still maintaining the pastoral pose, the praise of those thwarted in love is not for Louis ‘returned from the arms of victory’ but for Bacchus, god of wine, ‘the most adorable / and the greatest of gods’. In the end, Bacchus and Love are acknowledged as joint powers. Reportedly, 3000 people saw and heard the original performance; I wonder if this recording will reach as many.

Ensemble Marguerite Louise and Gaétan Jarry have already given us several fine recordings on the Château de Versailles label; I enjoyed their performance of a reconstructed Mass for Louis XIV, including music by Lully, despite misgivings about its authenticity – review – and the new recording is equally enjoyable.

As heard in 24-bit, the recording is very good; even the mp3 from Naxos Music Library sounds fine. The booklet is detailed and informative. All in all, this is a recording to savour, an attractive bit of escapism in pandemic times, but I’m not sure that I shall be playing it too often – there’s so much more wonderful music by Lully to choose first.

Brian Wilson

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