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Jean-Philippe Rameau: Platée, Pigmalion, Dardanus Ballet Suites
26 Mar 2007

RAMEAU: Platée, Pigmalion, Dardanus Ballet Suites

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, French instrumental music was closely identified with dance and dance suites.

Jean-Philippe Rameau: Platée, Pigmalion, Dardanus Ballet Suites

European Union Baroque Orchestra, Roy Goodman

Naxos 8.557490 [CD]

$7.99  Click to buy

Although it would be incorrect to assume that the origins of the suite were exclusively French, it is safe to say that the popularity of French ballet in general, and the operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully in particular, led to the creation of the orchestral suite toward the end of the 1600s. These works were initially formed by excerpting dance movements from operatic divertissements and placing an overture at the beginning. Conductor Roy Goodman has revived this practice for a Naxos recording on which ballet suites from three operas by the Jean-Philippe Rameau are drawn. The result is a welcome—if a slightly uneven—addition to the growing body of Rameau’s music recorded on CD. Goodman leads the European Union Baroque Orchestra, an ensemble of young musicians that is assembled each year to give the performers an opportunity to train under the direction of a variety of early music specialists. This CD includes performances by three different ensembles and three different recording sessions dating from 1999 to 2003.

The first suite is taken from Rameau’s witty comedy Platée, about the eponymous swamp nymph who falls in love with Jupiter. This music requires a deft touch that will allow its ironic humor to come through, and in general Goodman and the orchestra succeed in doing so. The overall sound is clear, buoyant and well-balanced, yet in some movements, the playing veers toward the prosaic. For example, in the “Air pour des fous gais et des fous tristes,” the aural depiction of the happy and sad fools would benefit from greater extremes of tempo and articulation. The performance is undeniably graceful and elegant, but this music is essentially parodic and deserves to be treated as such. At the premiere, the dancers, who dressed either as infants or Greek philosophers, were accompanied by the personification of folly playing a lyre that she had stolen from Apollo. The entire episode ridicules various conventions of the operatic stage, both musical and dramatic. Certainly overstatement is in order; the mock seriousness of the sad fools needs magnification, while the music of the happy fools could be much more manic. Especially at the end of this movement—when the two groups of dancers mingle and there are sudden shifts of tempo, dynamics and accent—the sharpest contrast is required.

Likewise, the two suites that follow are convincing by and large, but occasionally include a few sections that sound somewhat perfunctory. In Pigmalion, Goodman and the orchestra artfully maneuver through the rapid changes of meter and tempo that distinguish the movement entitled “Les différents caractères de la danse,” a movement intended to accompany Galatea—the statue brought to life—as Cupid teaches her how to move. Yet later in the same suite the performance starts to falter. Throughout the slow and lyrical “Air gracieux,” the music remains graceful, but lacks the sense of momentum that is heard elsewhere. Similarly, Tambourins III and IV from the Dardanus suite are fast enough but are rhythmically a bit square.

In short, all three suites receive satisfying performances and despite the minor quibbles that I have mentioned, do justice to Rameau and his music. Of course, confirmed fans of Rameau will most likely prefer to seek out complete recordings of the operas excerpted on this CD. Nonetheless, Goodman and the European Union Baroque Orchestra should be commended for making some of the eighteenth-century’s most delightful instrumental music available in a highly affordable and unquestionably pleasing recording.

Michael E. McClellan

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