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Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687)
Ballet Royal de la Naissance de Vénus
Ballet à 12 Entrées, LWV27 (1665) [53:00]
Ballet Royal des Amours déguisés, LWV21 (1664)
Air d’Armide: "Ah! Rinaldo, e dove sei?" [6:13]
Psyché, LWV45 (1671): Plainte italienne [7:55]
Le Carnaval, LWV52 (1675)
Air de Barbacola : "Son Dottor Per Occasion" [3:01}
Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, LWV43 (1670)
Chaconne d’Arlequin [1:36]
Deborah Cachet, Bénédicte Tauran (soprano)
Ambroisine Bré (mezzo)
Cyril Auvity (haute-contre – high tenor)
Samuel Namotte (tenor)
Guillaume Andrieux, Philippe Estèphe (bass-baritone)
Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset
rec. 11-12 January 2021, Cité de la Musique, Philharmonie de Paris
Premiere recording.
Tuning: Vallotti 392.
Text and translation included.
Reviewed from CD and as streamed in 24/96 sound.
APARTÉ AP255 [71:43]

You will search in vain for an alternative recording of this ballet, dedicated to ‘Madame’, Louis XIV’s sister-in-law, Henrietta of England, who also performed the part of Vénus herself. Anything by Lully is well worth discovering; not for nothing did the Sun King, Louis XIV, quickly spot his talents and promote him. His music survived the arrival of Rameau on the scene – the tragedy is that Lullistes and Rameauistes then took up sides instead of appreciating the music of both, and of Marc Antoine Charpentier. It took François Couperin ‘le grand’ to reconcile them in Les Goûts reunis, but that’s a story for another day.

Fortunately, we can now appreciate all three, not to mention those other contemporaries André Campra, André Desmarets and André Cardinal Destouches, whose Sémiramis, recorded by Les Ombres and released by Château de Versailles Spectacles has just arrived for review (CVS038). Far from seeking to oust the music of Lully, Rameau expressed admiration for it. (Dill, C: ‘Rameau reading Lully – Meaning and system in Rameau’s recitative tradition’, Cambridge Opera Journal Volume 6/1, Cambridge 1994. Available from JSTOR.)

I have yet to hear anything by Lully that was not well worthwhile, and I can think of few ensembles better qualified to bring his music to us than Les Talens Lyriques. With their director Christophe Rousset, they have given us many distinguished recordings of the music of this period, originally for Decca and more recently for Aparté, for whom they seem to be intending to record the whole opus: six CDs are already listed in the ‘Collection Lully’ in the booklet, all of which have received positive reviews: Stuart Sillitoe made their recording of Alceste a Recording of the Month – review. Michael Cookson wrote of the most recent release in this series, Isis, music successful enough to have been repeated nine times: though it ‘may not be considered to be Lully’s greatest achievement ... there is plenty to relish and the performance could hardly be bettered’– review.

I thought their recording of Couperin’s Concerts royaux a little less enjoyable than some of the rival accounts, but that was only by making a direct comparison; this time there is no comparison to make. Some of their earliest recordings for Decca seem a little staid by comparison with other versions – review – but there is nothing staid about this performance of La naissance de Vénus. They even make me want to dance in time to the music – not a pretty sight, but I would love to see this work danced by professionals.

As with any audio-only recording of Lully, Rameau or Charpentier, the spectacle is missing: in this case, there’s more ballet music than vocal. I don’t always find visuals very helpful, but perhaps the Château de Versailles label might give us an audio-visual recording some time, hopefully better managed visually than their last DVD which came my way (Stravaganza d’amore Spring 2020/3). In any case, the true spectacle is in the music, composed by Lully with assistance from Lambert and de Mollier, and that is performed with conviction and style by Christophe Rousset and his team. The music was originally planned to be given live at the Philharmonie de Paris; cancelled because of Covid, it’s now available to a wider audience, on record, so much more than second-best.

This is a ballet with some vocal inserts rather than an opéra-ballet. It seems almost a shame to have such a fine team of soloists when the vocal music is such a small part of the work – just five minutes for Neptune and Thétis as a prologue to the action in Part I – but what there is, is very well done. There’s a little more vocal music in part II, a dialogue of the Graces (all ladies of the court whose names are listed) and laments for Ariane (Ariadne) and Orphée (Orpheus), all well performed.  (Probably better than by the named ladies and gentlemen of the court?)

There’s more vocal material in the shorter pieces which round off the album, including a lament by Armide (Armida) for Rinaldo and a jokey Carnival piece in Italian. I appreciate the addition of those short pieces, which fill the CD to a much more reasonable size, but they might have been better as an hors d’œuvre rather than as an afterthought.

The sound as heard from the CD is very good. Most listeners will be happy with it in that form, but hi-res fans should enjoy the quality of sound in 24/96 format – on sale for around the same price as the CDs, or available to stream from Qobuz. 24-bit adds a touch of extra realism and is well worth the small extra cost.

The triptych in which the CD and booklet are housed promises much, with marbled end-papers like a vintage book, but it’s not immediately apparent where the disc is housed – inside the right-hand flap of the triptych – and there’s the all-too-common problem of getting the booklet in and out repeatedly without damage. Fortunately, Naxos Music Library and others offer a pdf version of the booklet, the notes in which are informative.

As with the earlier release of Isis – it also ran to nine performances – this may not be essential Lully, but the many lovers of his music will find themselves well served by it. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Brian Wilson

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