A king-sized collection
Baroque royalty had big appetites, but there were none bigger than those of the four French Baroque kings, Louis XIII to Louis XVI. They indulged in feasts of all types, including musical ones. This 20-CD collection of music spanning 1600 to 1800 features the music these big-wig kings would have enjoyed at court, chapel and theater. This marvelous boxed set, which commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Centre de Musique de Versailles, certainly brings to mind Mel Brooks’ King Louis in History of the World: Part I, who declared, “It’s good to be the king!”
The superbly produced box divides the repertoire into four broad categories: The Secrets of Versailles at the Time of Louis XIII; The “Pleasures” of Versailles During the Reign of Louis XIV; Refinement at Versailles Under Louis XV; The Twilight of Versailles Under Louis XVI.
Space doesn’t permit a detailed review of each disc, but there are plenty of treasures. I’m not a big fan of the air de cour, but the subtle beauties of music by Antoine Boesset and Robert Ballard receive sensitive and marvelously nuanced performances by soprano Monique Zanetti and lutenist Claire Antonini; they’re found on the CD devoted to music from the salons of the early French Baroque.
A big wig with Louis XIV underneath
For my taste, things really get rolling during the reign of Louis XIV. There’s a CD of music by Jean-Baptist Lully, including excerpts from his opera Amadis featuring the splendid soprano Véronique Gens. Another CD offers more Lully, plus excerpts from operas by André Cardinal Destouches, Marin Marais, Pascal Colasse and my favorite composer of the period, Marc-Antoine Charpentier. They feature the sensational young mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac.
Fans of instrumental music didn’t go hungry during the reign of Louis XIV (only the peasants did). There is a delightful CD that focuses on the chamber music of François Couperin, performed by Les Folies françoises, and sets of Symphonies pour les Soupers du Roi by Michel-Richard De Lalande and played by Musica Florea. While the performances don’t match the polished accounts by Jordi Savall’s Hesperion XX and Le Concert Des Nations recorded on Alia Vox, they are still plenty good.
There are three CDs dedicated to the sacred music that was heard at the court chapel and the parish churches. Grands motets by Lully, Henry Du Mont and Henry Desmarest sit alongside petit motets by Couperin and Charpentier. The performances are the best you will ever hear in this repertoire, and feature William Christie leading Les Arts Florissants (in a recording licensed from Warner France), Hervé Niquet directing Le Concert Spirituel (a recording licensed from Glossa) and stunning live performances by the Ricercar Consort. The mix of live recordings and carefully selected licensed performances are one of the many things that make this big box unique (although for seasoned collectors of this repertoire there might be some duplication).
William Christie, the king of the French Baroque
A more refined style took hold during the reign of Louis XV, and one of the chief masters of the new sound was Jean-Philippe Rameau. Rameau is well-represented on a CD of excerpts from his Hippolyte et Aricie (licensed from a Universal studio recording), with Gens singing and Marc Minkowski conducting Les Musiciens du Louvre, and live selections from Les Fêtes d’Hébé, Hippolyte (again) and Zoroastre with the ever-present Gens and Les Talens Lyriques under Christophe Rousset.
Véronique Gens, she sings like a goddess too!
It was good to be the king, indeed, and there are a few works that pay homage to His Majesty. Zélindor, roi des Sylpes, a one-act opera-ballet by François Rebel and François Francoeur in praise of Louis XV, is given a fetching performance by some fine vocalists and the ensemble Ausonia. The favors of Madame de Pompadour were also enjoyed by the king. She commissioned a number of works for her theater and even appeared in many of them. One of them is the delightful divertissement Ègine, by the little-known composer François Colin De Blamont, performed by vocalists and the instrumentalists of Les Nouveaux Caractères.
The sacred music of the time of Louis XV is represented with two CDs that feature such composers as Jean-Joseph De Mondonville and Rameau. Mondonville was a master of the concerted style (massed voices and orchestra), and the performance of his motet Dominus regnavit by Christie’s Les Arts Florissants is thrilling. The excitement Christie and company bring to the Mondonville is matched by the refined elegance that marks their performance of Rameau’s In convertendo.
Louis XVI with his head still attached
The music of Louis XVI’s illustrious predecessors is better known than the works from his reign. And yet, in some ways I think the music from the reign of Louis XVI is the most fascinating in the set. There’s an absolutely stunning CD of music by the Italian composers Antonio Sacchini and Niccolo Piccinni, performed by the glorious soprano Roberta Invernizzi accompanied by Antonio Florio’s Cappella della Pietà de’Turchini. Invernizzi is in splendid voice and is the model of elegant vocalism in the Mozartean “Je ne vous quitte point” from Sacchini’s Oedipe à Colone, and blows the roof off the joint with a virtuoso showcase in “Son regina e son amante” from Piccinni’s Didone abbandonata.
A singer I adore, Roberta Invernizzi
A CD of arias and orchestral music from French opera is another gem of the set. Here’s the dawn of Romanticism, with highly dramatic music by the rarely heard Rodolphe Kreutzer, Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny and the slightly better-known François-Joseph Gossec and André Ernest Modeste Grétry. Remember the name Pierre-Yves Pruvot: he’s the muscular-voiced baritone who makes a huge impression in arias from operas by these composers. I want to hear this guy sing Don Giovanni some day!
The remaining CDs are also quite good if not life-changing. Symphonies by Gossec, Simon Leduc and Henri-Joseph Rigel receive performances by Le Cercle de l’Harmonie under the direction of Jérémie Rhorer that are better than the music deserves, and you can’t help but be delighted by the energy and drive of the ensemble. The always superb fortepianist Andreas Staier plays a recital featuring music by Claude-Bénigne Balbastre, Hyacinthe Jadin and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. There are some virtuoso turns here, especially in Mozart’s Variations on “Lison dormait.” I was bored with some too-precious chamber music by François Devienne, Pierre Vachon, Giuseppe Maria Cambini and Luigi Boccherini. Perhaps the best was saved for last—a CD devoted to sacred music by Gossec, François Giroust, and Rigel. Check out the Gossec motet for some superb vocal writing!
The set comes with a thick booklet that, oh wonder of wonders, includes complete texts, translations and essays that are actually worth reading. One small complaint: the booklet provides a link to a website where there are supposed to be composer biographies, but alas, they are not to be found.
This is an essential set for anyone interested in the Baroque, and offers performances that are as state-of-the-art as anything currently out there. A magnificent achievement all around!
Mr. Brooks has his say