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Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683 - 1764): "Les Surprises de l'Amour, transcriptions de Monsieur Hesse"

Monique Zanetti, soprano; Stephan MacLeod, baritone
Ensemble A Deux Violes Esgales

rec: Sept 2009, Paris, Chapelle de Notre-Dame de Bon-Secours
Alpha - 176 (© 2011) (66'43")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

[in order of play] L'Enlèvement d'Adonis; Anacréon; La Lyre Enchantée; Sibaris

Jonathan Dunford, Sylvie Abramowicz, viola da gamba; Pierre Trocellier, harpsichord

In the 18th century it was common practice to arrange pieces from operas for single instruments - in particular keyboard - or instrumental ensemble. Famous examples are harpsichord arrangements of arias from operas by Handel, for instance by his contemporary William Babell. At the end of the century the operas by Mozart were so popular that there was a large demand for arrangements which amateurs could play at home. In France Lully was the first whose operas were the subject of arrangements: in particular dances were transcribed for harpsichord. This disc presents music for the theatre as composed by Jean-Philippe Rameau, in arrangements for two viole da gamba and bc.

This is remarkable in two respects. Firstly, arrangements for this scoring are rare, and the viola da gamba had already lost its important position in music life at the time Rameau composed Les Surprises de l'Amour. Secondly, the author of the arrangement was no French viola da gamba virtuoso, but a German: Ludwig Christian Hesse. This arrangement has survived in manuscript and was discovered by Jonathan Dunford in Berlin in 2007. Hesse was the son of Ernst Christian, who for many years was gambist at the court in Darmstadt, and had been a pupil of Marin Marais and Antoine Forqueray. Ludwig Christian received his first lessons from his father and worked for some years in the court chapel in Darmstadt as well. Although around the middle of the 18th century the viola da gamba was on its way to the margins of music life, it was still highly appreciated in Berlin. Frederick the Great's nephew, Crownprince Frederick William II, learned to play the gamba from the age of 13, and stood in correspondence with Forqueray. From 1761 until 1771 Hesse was a member of the Crownprince's private chapel.

It is not surprising that Hesse made arrangements of operatic repertoire. In 2008 the ensemble Musicke and Mirth released a disc under the title (translated) 'Ardour and Bravura', with music for viola da gamba as played at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin ( It includes several arrangements of fragments from two operas by Rameau: Castor et Pollux and Les Fêtes d'Hébé. According to the liner-notes these are part of a large collection of such arrangements. Is the arrangement recorded by the Ensemble A Deux Violes Esgales from the same collection or from another source? The liner-notes don't tell. Whatever, it is greatly enhancing our knowledge of performance practice in Berlin, underlining the importance of the viola da gamba as well as a vivid interest in French music.

Les Surprises de l'Amour was composed in 1748 at the request of Madame de Pompadour who played two roles in the first performance herself. Two other aristocrats took the other roles. In its original form the piece comprised a prologue (Le Retour d'Astrée) and two entrées (or acts): La Lyre Enchantée and Adonis (later L'Enlèvement d'Adonis). In later performances Rameau replaced entrées, which was possible because they all represent independent story lines. In this recording the opéra-ballet consists of a prologue - L'Enlèvement d'Adonis - and three entrées: Anacréon - not to be confused with the acte de ballet of the same title from 1754 -, La Lyre Enchantée and Sibaris. Hesse mainly arranged the instrumental pieces, like sarabande, Entrée des Jeux or contredanse. To these arrangements the performers have added some arias and duets from Rameau's original composition. That is a little unsatisfying as the coherence in French opera is such that it is much harder to isolate single arias than in most Italian operas, for instance by Handel. Considering this it is very helpful that the liner-notes give the plots of every single part of this opéra-ballet.

The two singers deliver good performances, in particular Monique Zanetti. Her voice is well suited to French music, and she largely avoids the excessive vibrato which spoils some of her recordings which I have heard. I needed some time to get used to Stephan MacLeod who I can appreciate more in other repertoire. I find his voice a little too edgy, but that is probably a matter of taste. He generally sings well, and his duets with Ms Zanetti are better than I expected. The main part interest of this recording is the arrangement for two gambas which are perfectly interpreted by Jonathan Dunford and Sylvia Abramowicz, with effective support by Pierre Trocellier at the harpsichord. It says much about the quality of Hesse's arrangements as well as the performance of the two gambists that the theatrical nature of Rameau's music comes off well.

Lovers of the viola da gamba will probably enjoy this disc more than lovers of Rameau's operas. The latter may well miss the colouring for which Rameau's orchestral music is so famous. Even so, this disc is important both from a historical and a strictly musical point of view.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Ensemble A Deux Violes Esgales

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