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Jean-Féry Rebel, André Cardinal Destouches: Les Élémens
07 Jan 2008

Les Élémens

This disc is well worth the price for the first track alone: the opening measures of Jean-Féry Rebel’s “Cahos,” (Chaos), written in 1737 or 1738, may cause you to wonder if you accidentally left a Stockhausen or Ligeti disc in the changer.

Jean-Féry Rebel, André Cardinal Destouches: Les Élémens

The Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood, conductor

Decca (L’Oiseau-Lyre) 475 9100 [CD]

$11.98  Click to buy

According to the composer’s preface to the published score, the opening fortissimo chord, containing all seven notes of the scale, represents “that confusion which reigned between the elements before the moment when . . . they took the places prescribed for them by the nature’s order.” What follows is literally chaotic: each of the elements has its own leitmotif and key, and they clash and conflict in nearly random fashion. A throbbing bass note represents Earth; Water is a flute scale; Air is a series of flute trills, and Fire is represented by high, rapid violin notes; they resolve themselves into a coherent and dramatic D minor tonality only at the end of the movement. What follows is a pleasant, but far more pedestrian, ballet suite in D major, intended for the Paris Opéra.

Although Les Élémens was originally written for an orchestra of about fifty players, the published version is set up to permit concert performance by two violins, two flutes and a bass, or private performance by violin and harpsichord, or by harpsichord alone. Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, in this digital remastering of an analog recording that won the French Grand prix du disque in the early days of the historical performance movement, thus fall somewhere in the middle, with an ensemble of about twenty which includes future superstars Monica Huggett and Simon Standage. Two all-digital recordings of Les Élémens are currently available from Les Musiciens du Louvre (1993) and Musica Antiqua Köln (1995); both of them use approximately the same performing forces. To hear the chamber version, one must track down the hard-to-get recording by the Palladian Ensemble (Linn Records, U.K., 2003).

The other work on this CD is a suite of excerpts from another ballet, also entitled Les Élémens. Rebel was probably familiar it, since the six-year-old King Louis XV danced in its first performance in 1721. The booklet lists it as being composed by André Cardinal Destouches, who was at that time the Inspector General of the Paris Opéra, but many of the movements were actually among the last works of court composer Michel-Richard de Lalande. The recording includes the overture, the “Air” numbers, and the “Water” numbers, and the “Fire” chaconne. Unlike the Rebel piece, little attempt is made to represent the elements programmatically. Lalande and Destouches rely on the scenery and costumes; the overture contains no vestige of the “fire spouting from volcanoes” that would have been visible onstage. Although this work is far more conventional than the Rebel piece, it is still well worth hearing, and the Academy’s recording appears to be the only one currently available.

Beverly Wilcox
University of California, Davis

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