07 July 2013

CD REVIEW: Jean-Philippe Rameau—LES AMANTS TRAHIS & OTHER CANTATAS (H. Guilmette, P. Sly; Analekta AN 2 9991)

Jean-Philippe Rameau: LES AMANTS TRAHIS (Analekta AN 2 9991)

JEAN-PHILIPPE RAMEAU (1683 – 1764): Thétis; Les amants trahis; Aquilon et Orithie; Le berger fidèle (Cantatas)—H. Guilmette, soprano; P. Sly, bass-baritone; Clavecin en concert; Luc Beauséjour [Recorded in Église St-Augustin de Mirabel, Québec, Canada, during October 2012; Analekta AN 2 9991; 1CD, 62:47]

When Hippolyte et Aricie, Jean-Philippe Rameau’s first tragédie en musique, was premièred in 1733, its composer was approaching his fiftieth birthday; rather late in life to begin a career as a revolutionary, it might be thought.  Rameau was already famous as a theorist and a composer of music for the harpsichord, but his embarking on a career in opera stirred passions in the French musical establishment, traditionalists recoiling in horror at Rameau’s perceived treading upon the feet of Jean-Baptiste Lully—a serious offense considering that Lully succumbed to an infection resulting from a self-inflicted foot wound—and exponents of the avant garde like André Campra extolling the innovative genius of Rameau’s music for the theatre.  History sides with those who viewed Rameau’s music as a refreshing zephyr blowing away the cobwebs of convention, with operas like Castor et Pollux and Dardanus now regarded as milestones in the development of the distinctively French opéra.  Interestingly, the last years of Rameau’s life and career as an opera composer found him embroiled in heated contests with proponents of the Italian style that had crossed the Alps like an invading Hun and besieged French theatres, but it was Rameau more than any of his contemporaries who incorporated elements of the Italian Baroque into his scores.  Furthermore, it was to the models of Rameau’s operas that Italian composers of opera seria in the mid-18th Century turned for inspiration, particularly in the sublimation of secco recitative to more emotionally-charged accompagnato and arioso.  Little is known about the origins of the impetus that spurred Rameau’s interest in opera.  In the decade or so prior to the genesis of Hippolyte et Aricie, Rameau composed at least six secular cantatas, four of which are offered by Analekta on this recording.  It would not be hyperbole to suggest that these cantatas are masterpieces on a small scale, and they reveal unmistakable hallmarks of the enlightened sensibilities and musical novelty that would blossom so influentially in Rameau’s operas.

A considerable element of the success of this disc is the scintillating sonic atmosphere conjured by the playing of Clavecin en concert, the authentic but never acerbic sounds of period instruments transporting the listener to the 18th-Century salons of Paris.  Under the direction of renowned harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour, Clavecin en concert consists of Adrian Butterfield and Chloe Meyers on violin, Grégoire Jeay on flute, and Mélisande Corriveau on viola da gamba.  The playing of these superb artists, both individually and in ensemble, reveals the often subtle manner in which Rameau shaped musical progression in these cantatas.

Fortunately, this is an age in which singers with voices of the highest quality sing Baroque repertory not as experiments or self-conscious efforts at diversifying their repertories but as legitimate expressions of artistic curiosity and commitment.  This recording features performances by two tremendously gifted artists, soprano Hélène Guilmette and bass-baritone Philippe Sly.  A veteran of acclaimed projects in the realm of Baroque music alongside Andreas Scholl, Les Violons du Roy, and Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Ms. Guilmette has also garnered praise in an array of ‘conventional’ operatic rôles including Constance in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites and Mélisande in Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-bleue.  A first-prize winner in the 2012 Concours Musical International de Montréal and winner of the grand prize in the 2011 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, Mr. Sly has been honored by Radio Canada in addition to his participation in the Young Artists Project of the Salzburger Festspiele and the Adler Fellowship Program at San Francisco Opera.  These are immensely talented singers in their early primes for whom Baroque repertory is natural, delightfully comfortable territory.

The disc opens with Thétis, a ‘cantate à une voix avec symphonie’ that imagines an intense dialogue between Jupiter and Neptune about the amorous attachments of Thetis, a legendarily attractive sea nymph.  Stylistically, Thétis represents the zenith of Rameau’s synthesis of the musical traditions familiar in Europe during his lifetime.  The beautiful, pensive Prélude and opening recitative (‘Muses, dans vos divins concerts’) and air (‘Volez, tyrans des airs’) possess the essence of the French style popularized by Lully.  The second air, ‘Partez, volez, brillants éclairs,’ conjures the stile galante of Corelli and Vivaldi, a vocal line peppered with wide intervals contrasted with a virtuosic perpetuum mobile accompaniment.  ‘Beautés qu’un sort heureux destine,’ the final air—marked by Rameau as an ‘Air Gracieux, sans lenteur’—occupies the world of the arias in Bach’s and Telemann’s Passions, the vocal line complemented by a lovely instrumental obbligato.  Mr. Sly sings the cantata powerfully, his voice adapting seamlessly to the disparate styles of the music.  The frequent ascents to top E are managed with absolute ease, and the ringing brilliance of his vocal presence makes him credible as both Jupiter and Neptune.

Les amants trahis (the Betrayed Lovers) could justifiably be described as an opera in miniature, its centerpiece being ‘Du dieu d’amour,’ an extended air for Damon that rivals the most luxuriantly gorgeous music that Rameau ever composed.  A dialogue between Tircis, portrayed by Ms. Guilmette, and Damon, Mr. Sly’s part, Les amants trahis is an example of emotional directness that Rameau would explore so memorably in his operas.  The first line of Damon’s recitative (‘Moi, j’y viens rire!’) takes Mr. Sly to low G, a note to which he returns on several occasions throughout the cantata.  Stylistically, Les amants trahis is in the same vein as Castor et Pollux, the theme of love’s complications considered with refinement and a touching element of melancholy.  Both Ms. Guilmette and Mr. Sly sing beguilingly, their command of Rameau’s frequently-deployed upper mordent consistently evident.  Both singers venture some very understated ornamentation, Ms. Guilmette’s embellishments allowing occasion forays into her sparkling upper register.  The resonance of Mr. Sly’s lowest notes is slightly surprising for such a young singer, but he is entirely successful at avoiding even the slightest hint of forcing the tone.  His and Ms. Guilmette’s voices combine in duet like silk draping over the smoothest marble.

Aquilon et Orithie, or Enlèvement d’Orithie (The Abduction of Orithyia), is a vigorous piece in which the soloist’s bravura technique is again put to the test.  The first air, ‘Un amant tel que moi doit-il prouver sa flamme,’ demands flexibility, rhythmic precision, and a trill, all of which Mr. Sly provides with boundless energy and concentration.  ‘Servez mes feux à votre tour,’ the cantata’s second air, resembles the type of aria that Händel composed in his London operas for Giuseppe Maria Boschi: a piece in the Italianate da capo style, its particular challenges include a descent to low F-sharp and a pair of long-sustained top Es.  Mr. Sly avoids the low F-sharp but accepts Rameau’s offer of an optional top F-sharp.  Trilling on the repeat of the sustained top E and using embellishments that raise the tessitura in the second statement of the ‘A’ section, Mr. Sly comfortably traverses the cantata’s two octaves even without the low F-sharp.  The air that closes the cantata, ‘On peut toujours dans l’amoureux mystère,’ again displays Rameau’s genius at its most inspired, the vocal line graceful but restless as the singer expresses frustration with the confounding ambiguities of love.  Mr. Sly conveys this exasperation credibly but also creates a sense of resignation to a lover’s fate that introduces a touching suggestion of wistful regret.  Another low F-sharp is omitted, and Mr. Sly prefers to remain on the higher notes of penultimate phrases when Rameau asks for octave drops—from the B a semi-tone below middle C to the B an octave down, for instance—that create upward resolutions of cadences.  Mr. Sly’s reshaping of the phrases as descents from dominant to tonic is effective, however, and enables the singer’s focus to be on both musical and dramatic resolution of phrases rather than placement of the lower register.

Ms. Guilmette closes the disc with an especially lovely performance of Le Berger Fidèle (The Faithful Shepherd), a sterling example of the Arcadian cantata that was so popular during the High Baroque among composers on all sides of the Alps.  Following the brief opening recitative, an ‘air plaintif,’ ‘Faut-il qu’Amarillis périsse,’ sets the mood of Le Berger Fidèle.  Ms. Guilmette sings with a voice that seems carried by bucolic zephyrs.  In the ‘air gai,’ ‘L’Amour qui règne dans votre âme,’ Ms. Guilmette makes enchanting use of the dramatic slowing of tempo that Rameau stipulates at the words, ‘Vous montrez comme il faut aimer.’  The voice shimmers attractively in the upper register, displaying an exceptionally lovely top A-flat.  In the final air, ‘Charmant Amour, sous ta puissance,’ the soprano receives an Händelian aria of the type that the Saxon composer wrote for Francesca Cuzzoni.  The soprano has a delicate melodic line stretched like a strand of pearls over an accompaniment busy with triplet figurations, and Ms. Guilmette’s timbre glows with opalescence.  She takes advantage of every opportunity given to her by the composer to combine beautiful singing with heartfelt interpretation, making of this cantata an impeccably stylish piece of singing but also a deeply personal experience.

With the increased attention that the cantate da camera of Italian Baroque composers have received in recent years, it seems inexplicably unjust that the exquisite cantatas of Jean-Philippe Rameau have continued to be relatively obscure.  They have been recorded on a few occasions in past, of course, and the brilliant British baritone Sir Thomas Allen enjoyed great success with his espousal of Thétis, albeit in a manner that did not take full advantage of scholarship concerning period-appropriate performances of French Baroque music.  In terms of historically-informed style, this recording leaves nothing to be desired.  With instrumentalists who share the singers’ dedication to performing the music at a level that the composer’s genius deserves, all of the elements are in place to enable the construction of a magnificent musical structure, and those elements are here arranged with unique harmony.  What so many recordings of French Baroque repertory lack is, for want of a better term, heart: Hélène Guilmette and and Philippe Sly ensure that no such deficiency afflicts this disc.  In short, this recording sets a standard that is unlikely to ever be surpassed.