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"200 Years of Music at Versailles - A Journey to the Heart of French Baroque"

Various performers

rec: 2005 - 2007
MBF - 1107 (20 CDs) (© 2007) (c18.30')


In 1987 the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles was founded. It was an expression of the growing interest in pre-romantic music, which in France started somewhat later than elsewhere. It was also an indiacation of the increasing interest in France's own musical past. Many composers who are household names now were largely unknown at that time. And there is no doubt that the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles has played an important role in this process. So in 2007 there was every reason to celebrate the 20th anniversary of this insitution. The result is a box of 20 discs, which contains repertoire which spans the period of the early baroque to the emergence of the romantic style.

The main merit of this box is that it presents a nice overview of the various genres of music during two centuries. It starts off with two discs in which the air de cour features prominently, a genre whose roots are in the renaissance. It ends with sacred music which has moved away from the aesthetic of the baroque era. On the latest discs we meet the fortepiano, we hear symphonic repertoire and a growing influence of the classical and early romantic Italian opera.

Of course, not every genre is equally well represented. There is more music in larger scorings than chamber music. There is no harpsichord music nor music for the viola da gamba, two of the most celebrated instruments in France during the ancien régime. But even in a collection of 20 discs one has to make a choice.

What is perhaps most disappointing is the inclusion of a number of excerpts from commercial recordings. There is a good chance people interested in this kind of repertoire already have these recordings. The booklet doesn't give clear information about whether a live concert has been included in its entirety or only in excerpts. I find it difficult to believe that the concert by Monique Zanetti and Claire Antonini (CD 1) lasted only 35 minutes, including an encore. Also the concert by Le Cercle de l'Harmonie (CD 17) was probably longer than just 31 minutes. Also no exact dates of the recordings are given.

The booklet doesn't give any information about the composers or the performers. The former can be downloaded here.

As far as the choice of repertoire is concerned, of course this set contains pieces which are rather well-known. In particular the excerpts from operas are probably the least interesting parts of this set, as they are often available in complete recordings. But there is plenty of stuff that is hardly known. Among the most interesting programmes are the 17th-century repertoire played by Il Seminario Musicale - which is also one of the best performances of the set -, the sacred music by composers like Du Mont, Desmarest and De Brossard who all belong to the lesser-known composers of the French baroque era.

Zélindor, a co-production of François Rebel (son of Jean-Féry) and François Francoeur (CD 10). François Colin de Blamont is also a minor figure on today's baroque scene; his divertissement Égine is an original piece which catches the ear for its harmonic language and effective use of the instruments.

Most unknown repertoire comes from the second half of the 18th century. As it was long seen as a period of deterioration not that much attention has been paid to the music from that time. But the items performed here show that this neglect is not justified.

This is probably less a review than a piece of information: it is impossible to give a fair judgement of the various and often very different performances. It is a shame that some of the most interesting contributions are a bit spoiled by the unstylish vibrato of some soloists, for instance the divertissement by De Blamont. But a production like this isn't the way to present ideal performances anyway, especially as most of them are recorded live. Let me assure you that there are no bad performances and all interpretations are at least acceptable, most of them more than that.

The main significance of this set is that it gives the listener the opportunity to broaden his horizon and get acquainted with lesser-known composers and compositional styles. From that perspective this collection can be recommended without reservation.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

200 Years of Music at Versailles

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