I’m going to stick my neck out here—I believe that if the Classical Style, and particularly sonata form, had not achieved quite such complete hegemony as the yardstick of musical quality, Jean-Philippe Rameau would be accorded the same respect today as later Austro-German composers. Being French didn’t help, either; the paucity of outstanding French composers between Rameau’s death in 1764, and the end of the nineteenth century (OK, Berlioz, Alkan, Chausson, but others?) led to an assumption that the French just weren’t very good at serious music, and this attitude lingers even now.
Now, having made my pitch, let me introduce this delightful 2-hybrid SACD set containing four Suites from Rameau’s stage works, spread over almost 30 years: Les Indes Galantes from 1735, Naïs from 1748, Zoroastre from 1749, and as a swansong, Les Boréades from 1764. Jordi Savall directs his group Le Concert des Nations in this, the third of his series covering the evolution of the French Baroque orchestra—the previous two were l’Orchestra de Louis XIII (AV9824) and Lully: l’Orchestre du Roi Soleil (AV9807). Each operatic Suite consists of ten or so movements and lasts almost half an hour—these are large-scale works. All four are superlative collections of the most characterful, memorable, intelligent music to have emerged from the mid-eighteenth century. Of course, the origins of the separate movements in music-theatre works, often as dance-interludes, puts limits on their extendedness—few last more than a couple of minutes—but the result is an extraordinary concentration of gesture. Similarly, the pieces exhibit a huge emotional range, from the exquisitely tender and pastoral to the tempestuous to the grand. Rameau was one of the first composers to use specific instruments for their colour, for instance the bagpipe musette de cour in the Musette en Rondeau movement from les Indes Galantes, or the Musette Tendre from Naïs, or the flutes traversières in les Vents, and the authentic instruments used by Savall’s group really emphasise these colouristic touches. Sadly, Rameau’s musical theorising attracted the intense hostility of such young turks as Jean-Jaques Rousseau, who saw his emphasis on harmony as wrong-headed; indeed, by the time of les Boréades Rameau was writing, according to the liner notes, in “in a style regarded as outmoded by the vast majority”. And yet, this is such stylish, vital, and glorious “old-fashioned” music!
Le Concert des Nations under Savall perform with their usual energy and excellence, and I cannot believe that anyone would fail to respond with passion to this consummately great music-making—unfailingly, I find myself dancing along. According to the liner notes a DVD version is in the offing, too; now that will be special.