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16.12.06

Marc Minkowski Releases

Since forming his historically informed performance (HIP) ensemble, Les Musiciens du Louvre, in the 1980s conductor Marc Minkowski has released a stunning number of excellent recordings, many of which have set the benchmark for performance of 17th- and 18th-century music. Quite naturally, the group has specialized in French composers of le grand siècle, although they have made excellent recordings of Handel operas, too, and recently a few forays into other territory, including Mozart and even Berlioz, Méhul, and Offenbach.

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Rameau, Hippolyte et Aricie, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, Véronique Gens, Bernarda Fink, Laurent Naouri, Les Musiciens du Louvre, Ensemble Vocal Sagittarius, Marc Minkowski (first released 1995, re-released September 2006)
Perhaps the best work that Minkowski and other French conductors, especially William Christie (an honorary citizen of France), have done is give the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau the recordings it deserves. Hippolyte et Aricie was the first major Rameau opera that Minkowski released, in this live recording made in June 1994 at the Opéra Royal in Versailles. Graham Sadler's work on the new critical edition of the works of Rameau has revealed the misconceptions, even fabrications, of the composer's operas and given us guidance on the multiple versions of most of them. In the excellent liner notes, including an essay by none other than Graham Sadler, Minkowski explains how he arrived at the rather complete form of the score recorded here, with some parts that have often been cut from Hippolyte restored. The dance music in this opera is so charming, like the sailors' ballet in Act III (in which we can hear the frenzied clicking of oboe machinery in one of the rigaudons), I would hate not to have it.

The vocal casting is superb, with Jean-Paul Fouchécourt and Véronique Gens in excellent voice as the eponymous lovers. Some of the music is just too good to believe, as in Aricie's opening aria of Act I ("Temple sacré"), which is luscious, gentle, seductive, and harmonically daring. Although some of the minor roles are merely good, Bernarda Fink has a superlative turn as Phèdre, the jealous stepmother (a review of her Sesto with René Jacobs in La Clemenza di Tito is forthcoming), and Laurent Naouri is appropriately solemn as the three gods, Pluton, Neptune, and Jupiter. There are some tracks that could have benefitted from an alternate take, if this were not a live recording. The thunder scene of Diana's anger in Act I, for example, is uneven, with the many runs jumbled by instruments and voices, but the booming percussion and thunder screen makes it thrilling. This set is certainly worth owning, especially since its only competition -- Les Arts Florissants with Mark Padmore and one Lorraine Hunt as Phèdre -- appears to be mostly unavailable in the United States (still carried by Amazon UK). Janet Baker's historic recording is a curiosity worth finding if you can.

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Lully, Acis et Galatée, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, Véronique Gens, Mireille Delunsch, Howard Crook, Laurent Naouri, Les Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski (first released 1998, re-released September 12, 2006)
Opera Lafayette gave a live performance of Jean-Baptiste Lully's final opera, Acis et Galatée, here last year. For this 1996 live recording in the Salle Wagram in Paris, Minkowski reunited the two lead singers from Hippolyte et Aricie, with Fouchécourt and Gens singing equally well in these title roles, and Laurent Naouri again, in the memorable role of the cyclops, Polyphème. First released by Deutsche Grammophon in 1998, Archiv has recently given it a most welcome re-release. Fouchécourt has the sweetest high range, perfectly suited to this kind of music, and Gens gives a moving performance in the little scena in Act III, after Acis is fatally crushed by the rock thrown by the cyclops, in alternation with instrumental passages. The music, especially the chaconne and passacaille movements, is exquisite, Lully at the height of his craft. The instrumental performance here is equal to the vocal, with tight, rhythmically activated readings of all the dance pieces, often with the phrase shapes highlighted crisply by percussion.

Minkowski again shows his musicological connections, with the essay in this booklet by Jérôme de La Gorce (and English translations by Graham Sadler). If you are used to the serious tone of Lully's tragic operas, this work is in a lighter pastoral style, and in it, as La Gorce put it in his essay, Lully rediscovered shortly before his death the comic mode he had when he collaborated with Molière. The role of Polyphemus, sung with appropriate bluster and an odd accent by Naouri, is particularly funny: the Act II entrance of the cyclops is preceded by a heavy-footed march, which Minkowski has punctuated by a silly panpipe signal, almost like a slide whistle. Besides all of its strengths (there are not even any "live recording" glitches to be regretted here), this is the only complete recording of the opera, and it is worth owning.

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Rameau, Une symphonie imaginaire, Les Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski (released on June 14, 2005)
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Rameau, Les Boréades, Les Arts Florissants
Alex Ross praised Minkowski's most recent Rameau disc, Une symphonie imaginaire, when it was released and listed it on his Top 10 List of 2005 recordings. I missed the recording at the time, but it has recently crossed my desk and has become favorite listening, for either focused appreciation or background for cooking dinner. The concept is simple and ingenious: Rameau was universally praised for the symphonic pieces in his operas but wrote almost no stand-alone music for orchestra alone. Minkowski stitches together his imaginary Rameau symphony from various places, including a ritournelle from Hippolyte et Aricie, dance movements from several operas and ballets, and arias with the vocal parts artfully removed. One particularly beautiful example of the latter is "Tristes apprêts, pâles flambeaux" from Castor et Pollux, which recently appeared in an opera scene in Sofia Coppola's latest movie, Marie-Antoinette (sound taken from the excellent recording by Les Arts Florissants). There is even a modern orchestral transcription of Rameau's famous piece for keyboard, La Poule (The hen). Most satisfying are several pieces drawn from Les Boréades, a little-known tragic opera published posthumously. John Eliot Gardner has recorded it, but I am now most interested in seeing the DVD, released in 2004, of a performance of the opera in Paris by Les Arts Florissants, with Barbara Bonney and none other than Laurent Naouri again.

Archiv 445 853-2 / Archiv 453 497-2 / Archiv B0004478-02

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