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Jean-Philippe RAMEAU & Jean-Féry REBEL: Orchestral suites

[I] Jean-Féry REBEL: Les Élémens - Jean-Philippe RAMEAU: Castor et Pollux
L'Orfeo Barockorchester
Dir: Michi Gaigg

rec: June 21 - 23, 2007, Schärding am Inn (A), Kirche der Barmherzigen Brüder
Phoenix Edition - 110 (© 2008) (54'41")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Jean-Philipp RAMEAU (1683-1764): Castor et Pollux, tragédie en musique: suite for orchestra; Jean-Féry REBEL (1666-1747): Les Élémens, symphonie de danse

[II] Jean-Philippe RAMEAU: "Zaïs, Hippolyte et Aricie - orchestral suites"
L'Orfeo Barockorchester
Dir: Michi Gaigg

rec: March 5 - 7, 2010, Ried im Innkreis (A), Landesmusikschule Ried (chapel)
Crystal - N 67 063 (© 2011) (62'08")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Jean-Philipp RAMEAU: Hippolyte et Aricie, tragédie en musique: suite for orchestra; Zaïs, pastorale-héroïque: suite for orchestra

The orchestra as we know it dates from the 17th century. It had its origin in the consorts of instruments - usually violins - which were a common phenomenon in the late 16th and early 17th century. In France the small ensemble which played at the court during various social events and whose repertoire consisted mainly of dance music was extended under the rule of Louis XIII. In the second half of the 17th century it was Jean-Baptiste Lully who created a full-size orchestra with strings and wind, often with timpani. This orchestra became one of the pillars of French opera which came into existence under Lully. In his operas it played many instrumental pieces, from the overture to the closing chaconne.

This tradition was kept well into the 18th century as the operas of Jean-Philippe Rameau prove. They contain many movements for orchestra. Their role was rather different from that in Lully's time, though. In the latter's opera the instrumental dances were mainly an opportunity for dancing, which was one of the favourite pastimes of the French aristocracy, and in particular of King Louis XIV. But in Rameau's opera they had a dramatic function and were meant to express what was going on at the stage.

The same principle underlies Les Elémens, a symphonie de danse by Jean-Féry Rebel. He can be considered the link between Lully and Rameau, as far as the repertoire on these two discs is concerned. He was a pupil of Lully in composition and violin. From 1705 he was a violinist in the court's orchestra, the 24 Violons du Roy and then became batteur de mesure in that ensemble as well as the orchestra of the Opéra. He composed one opera Ulysse, but as it wasn't received very well he concentrated on composing dance music. In this department he was very successful, and his Les caractères de la danse was performed by some of the most famous women dancers of his time. Rebel was the first French composer to write independent orchestral music, which was not part of a work for the theatre.

The second disc includes instrumental music from Rameau's Zaïs, a ballet héroïque. From the perspective of the subject matter the latter is close to Rebel's Les Elémens. Both works begin with a depiction of chaos, from which order is created. Rebel's symphonie de danse opens with 'Le Cahos', whereas Rameau begins his opera with an 'Ouverture qui peint le debrouillement du Chaos et le choc des Elémens lorsqu'il sont séparés' (overture which depicts the unravelling of chaos and the collision of the elements as they are separated). This subject is then worked out in the Prologue in which one of the elements, Fire, is playing a crucial role. It would have been a logical choice to combine the suite from Zaïs with Rebel's Les Elémens, but as it happens the latter piece was linked to a suite from Rameau's Castor et Pollux, his third tragédie en musique.

Rameau's first work in this genre - and his very first work for the theatre - was Hippolyte et Aricie, which dates from 1733. It is based on a tragedy by Racine about the destructive passion of Phèdre to her stepson Hippolyte which contrasts with the latter's love for Aricie. This creates some strong contrasts within the opera which is reflected by the orchestral suite that is played here.

It is this suite which comes off best as far as the second disc is concerned. The orchestra particularly shines in the overture and movements like the '3ème Air des Furies' or the three 'tambourins'. In comparison the performance of instrumental music from Zaïs is a bit disappointing. It has little dramatic power and is also rather pale in comparison with Hippolyte et Aricie as well as with the two works at the first disc. Les Elémens by Rebel is given an arresting performance in which the representation of the various elements is well realised. Rameau's Castor et Pollux is also done quite well.

One could argue that the orchestra is too small for this repertoire. Rebel's music will have be performed by the 24 Violons du Roy and Rameaus operas were performed by the Académie Royale de Musique, whose orchestra was relatively large. Whether larger forces would have led to a better performance of Zaïs is a matter of speculation.

There is one aspect of the scoring which needs mention. The orchestra which played in Lully's operas was different from the orchestras elsewhere in Europe in that it included three string instruments which played the parts between treble (violins, often with oboes playing colla parte) and bass. These were known as haute-contre de violon, taille de violon and quinte de violon. Towards the end of the 17th century the orchestral scoring started to change, and first the quite de violon disappeared. Another matter of interest is the use of the basse de violon, which was the common string bass in the 17th century. It was Michel Pignolet de Montéclair who played the basse de violon in the orchestra of the Opéra who introduced the double bass around 1700.

This is relevant in regard to these two discs. In the first L'Orfeo Barockorchester uses the traditional scoring of violins, violas, cellos and double basses, whereas at the second disc the Lullian instruments are used, with the exception of the quite de violon. From a historical perspective the second disc is more 'authentic' than the first. The exception could be the use of the basse de violon. Considering the introduction of the double bass by Montéclair I wonder whether it was correct to drop the double bass of the first recording in favour of the basse de violon.

Giving a final verdict causes a bit of a dilemma. The first disc is musically most satisfying, but historically not quite up-to-date. With the second it is the other way round. The music on both discs is available in other recordings as well.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

L'Orfeo Barockorchester

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