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Henri-Joseph RIGEL (1741 - 1799): "Trois hiérodrames"

Ruxandra Ibric-Cioranu, Cécile Moureau, Isabelle Poulenard, soprano; Philippe Do, hautecontre; Alain Buet, Marduk Serrano, baritone
Les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, Orchestre des Folies Françoises
Dir: Olivier Schneebeli

rec: Dec 1 - 2, 2006 (live), Versailles, Château (Chapelle royale)
K617 - K617198 (© 2006) (73'58")

Jephté; La destruction de Jéricho; La sortie d'Égypte

The music in France of the last quarter of the 18th century doesn't receive much attention at the concert platform or from the recording industry. Is it the poor quality of the 'revolutionary music' of the last decade of the century which has compromised French music of the late 18th century? There can be no doubt that trivial stuff has been produced at that time, but on the other hand in many ways Paris was the place to be in the classical era. Otherwise Mozart hadn't been there in search for a job, and it hadn't attracted so many musicians and composers from other countries.

Paris certainly held great attraction for German composers of the late 18th century. One of them was Henri-Joseph Rigel, born as Riegel in Wertheim in Germany. Rigel was already active as a composer of orchestral music while still in Germany, where he studied with Niccolò Jommelli in Stuttgart. It is not exactly known when he went to Paris, but in 1768 he established his own residence in the French capital. In that same year he married, and in 1769 and 1772 his two sons were born.
It didn't take long before Rigel started to play a crucial role in French musical life. He was praised for being an excellent teacher and his music was characterised as full of ideas, with graceful and fluent melodies, and of true expression. Until the end of his life he had several positions, like that of chef d'orchestre of the Concert Spirituel and, after the Revolution, as professor for piano of the Conservatoire.

Rigel contributed to almost every genre of music of that time, including the opera. Some of his operas were very successful. The three works recorded here belong to the category of the hiérodrame, meaning 'sacred drama'. It was the result of the attempt of the directors of the Concert Spirituel - François-Joseph Gossec, Simon Le Duc and Pierre Gaviniès - to revitalise the tradition of the grand motet which was in decline. With the term hiérodrame they wanted to underline its innovative nature. In fact this genre conbined elements from the grand motet and the tragédie lyrique. These hiérodrames were performed at the Concert Spirituel, but in concertante form, not staged.

Otherwise they are rather close to the opera, and that is certainly the case with Rigel's three hiérodrames performed here. La Sortie d'Égypte (the departure from Egypt) describes in six short scenes how the people of Israel are freed from Egypt by God and how the Egyptian army is swollen by the sea. The orchestral score shows why Rigel was held in high regard as a symphonist, as he uses the orchestra very effectively to depict the natural phenomena like sea and thunder. Vry striking is the sequence of choruses which closes the oratorio. Whereas the Egyptians sing to a very lively rhythm "Run, let us hasten! ... May this guilty people feel your blows", only to discover somewhat later how they are in danger of drowning into the water, the Israelites' choruses are characterised by peace and quiet, reflecting their trust in God. This way the conflict between Egyptians and Israelites is made very strongly felt.

This oratorio became very popular and was frequently performed at the Concert Spirituel for 14 years after its first performance in 1774. Christoph Willibald von Gluck was full of praise of Rigel: "You have here a man whom you must retain at all costs: M. Rigel is the man you need for grand theatre. When one has produced an oratorio such as La Sortie d'Égypte, one is capable of creating major works". In contrast the largest work on this disc, Jephté, was only performed once by the Concert Spirituel, in 1784. The year before it had been performed elsewhere, and then it met strong ciriticism as it was thought the romantic element was too elaborated. As a result Rigel reworked it, and as it was performed in 1784 the subject of criticism had been largely removed. Still Rigel introduces a character the biblical narration doesn't tell about: Azael, suitor of Jephtha's daughter - called Aza here - is waiting for Jephtha to return home, together with Aza. When the fate of Aza becomes clear to him he offers to take her place. Later on he urges Jephtha to try to mollify God by fasting and prayer. The contrast between Jephtha and his daugther is very effectively worked out by the two strongly contrasting arias. Jephtha's lament on the fate of his daughter shows the full amount of Rigel's expressive powers, particularly by the orchestral score which is rich of affect.

The third work, La Destruction de Jéricho (the destruction of Jericho) was another great success. After its first performance in 1778 it was regularly performed during the next seven years. Here again we meet Rigel the symphonist: unlike the other two oratorios this work begins with an overture, and then the wind section of the orchestra is particularly exploited to illustrate the power with which God destroys the city of Jericho. Again Rigel uses a sequence of choruses to show the conflict between the Israelites and - this time - the inhabitants of Jericho. The oratorio ends with a chorus in which the people of Israel sing the praises of God.

This is a most intriguing disc, presenting repertoire hitherto unknown, from a neglected part of music history. Although there are slight cuts in two of the three oratorios we have to be thankful that the participants in this recording have made them available to a modern audience. There are a number of solo parts, mostly rather small, which are all sung very well. The main soloists here are Isabelle Poulenard - particularly impressive as Aza in Jephté -, Philippe Do - Azael in Jephté - and Alain Buet, who sings the main roles in all three oratorios: Moses (Moïse) in La Sortie d'Égypte, Jephtha (Jephté) and Joshua (Josué) in La Destruction de Jéricho. In all three roles he gives marvellous performances, authoritative as Moses, deeply moving in Jephté's lament. The choir also gives strong performances and so does the orchestra, although sometimes I had liked a little more bite. But that is also the effect of the reverberation which is larger than had been ideal.

The booklet contains informative programme notes in French and English, and the lyrics are printed in the French original and in an English translation. Strongly recommended.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

Relevant links:

Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles
Les Folies Françoises

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