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Premiere Recording: Mayr’s Telemaco nell’isola di Calipso (1797)

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Jean-Philippe Rameau: In Convertendo Dominus
24 Jan 2007

RAMEAU: In Convertendo Dominus

Let it be said at the outset that, at least to my eyes, the packaging and marketing of this DVD is somewhat misleading.

Jean-Philippe Rameau: In Convertendo Dominus

Nicolas Rivenq, Sophie Daneman, Jeffrey Thompson, Olga Pitarch Orchestra and Chorus of Les Arts Florissants, William Christie (cond.)

Opus Arte OA 0956 D [DVD]

$20.99  Click to buy

The prominent title is In Convertendo, a grand motet from Rameau's early years as a church organist; and the box is labeled Concert/Documentary. Things should be the other way around: this is in fact a DVD presenting an excellent documentary, The Real Rameau, with In Convertendo and three movements from the Pièces de Clavecin en Concerts as lagniappe (Lousiana French for "a small gift thrown in free along with a purchase").

Even such figures as Handel, Bach, Vivaldi, and Telemann are not well-supplied with documentaries on their lives and works, so a presentation of Rameau, certainly the least well-known of the great composers of the Baroque, is especially welcome. Rameau, who I like to think of as Puccini to Lully's Verdi, had the greatest second act in the history of music, making his debut as opera composer in Paris at the age of 50 after decades in the provinces as an organist (imagine J.S. Bach moving to Italy in 1735 to write operas!). The documentary begins with a dramatized discussion of the great composer lifted from Denis Diderot's Rameau's Nephew (you can read the complete text here), and moves through the course of Rameau's career with the engaging William Christie as our guide, along with musicologist Sylvie Boissou of the Institut de recherché sur le patrimoine musical en France, illustrated by clips from In Convertendo, the Pièces de Clavecin, and the operas (there are now four available complete on DVD – Les Indes Galantes, Platée, Les Paladin, and Les Boreades). Christie and Boissou do a fine job of explaining, within the context of a one-hour film, what is exceptional, striking, immortal about the work of this composer. Given more time, I would have loved to see more detail on the theatrical dance of the time (we are told that Rameau was the greatest composer for the dance before Stravinsky, but we are not shown why this is so), and perhaps some discussion of how French operatic singing differed from the Italian vocalism of the period (that it differed greatly is evident from the writings of such Italophiles as Charles Burney, who execrated French singers).

After the operatic stimulation of the documentary (who can see the singing frog-princess, Platée, without wanting to see the whole of the opera?), the more restrained idiom of the motet, as fine as it is, and as fine as its performance is, is a bit of a let-down. Had Rameau never composed for the stage, this work would have suffered the fate of all its fellows produced for the church – to remain unsung in a library archive – and we should never have had this documentary, a documentary which is a fine introduction to one of the greatest of composers and his works.

Tom Moore

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