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Reviewer: David Vickers

‘Rameau’s inventive overture fizzes, crackles and beguiles in Les Talens Lyriques’ capable hands’

 According to the Mercure de France, Rameau composed Pygmalion (1748) in less than eight days, responding rapidly to an urgent commission from desperate directors of the Académie Royale de Musique. This might partly account for Sylvain Ballot de Sovot modelling the libretto on the entrée ‘La sculpture’ in Antoine Houdar de La Motte’s half-century old text for the opera-ballet Le triomphe des Arts (1700). Taking its story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the sculptor Pygmalion falls deeply in love with a statue he has made, and his emotive pleading to Venus is rewarded when Cupid brings it to life (and, happily, the statue requites her maker’s devotion). The acte de ballet became one of Rameau’s most popular works throughout the 18th century; there were more than 200 performances between 1748 and 1781 (only Castor et Pollux was performed more often).

It has been reasonably popular in modern times too; its brevity, considerable charm and easily accessible plot mean that it is something like an ideal distillation of all Rameau’s genius into a single short act that has a bit of everything (a fantastic overture, vocal airs in different styles and moods, attractive dances galore and even a few bits for a chorus). No doubt this has made Pygmalion easier to tackle in the recording studio than any of the bigger operas, and there have been quite a few recordings: versions on LP conducted by Marcel Couraud (Archiv, 7/63, 4/81) and Nicholas McGegan (Erato, 1984) have never been issued on CD, but there are also versions by Gustav Leonhardt and La Petite Bande (DHM, 2/82, 7/90), William Christie and Les Arts Florissants (Harmonia Mundi, 7/92), and Hervé Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel – whose account features an exemplary sculptor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt and statue Sandrine Piau at their mellifluous finest (originally released by Fnac in 1993 but given wider circulation by Virgin’s Veritas label a few years later – 10/93).  

Christophe Rousset played the harpsichord on Christie’s recording when he was already becoming established as a distinguished Ramellian in his own right (in the 1990s he won two Gramophone Awards for marvellous recordings of Rameau’s complete Pièces de clavecin and a vibrant collection of orchestral overtures). His refreshing interpretation of Pygmalion was recorded earlier this year at the Theater an der Wien and sets a new benchmark. Rameau’s inventive overture fizzes, crackles and beguiles as each element demands in Les Talens Lyriques’ capable hands; the fast repeated notes – supposedly representing Pygmalion’s chisel hammering away – are articulated with a perfect juxtaposition of taut vitality and urbane elegance. The melancholic sculptor’s opening scene is sung beautifully by Cyrille Dubois, whose ardency and finesse never have any hints of strain at the top of the voice (‘Fatal Amour, cruel vainqueur’, which also has immaculately balanced flutes); the scene depicting his rebuttal of Céphise is so short that you’ll miss it if you blink, but Marie-Claude Chappuis offers passionate refinement as the exasperated companion whose unwanted love cannot compare to the artist’s obsession for his creation. Left alone, Pygmalion’s adoration for the statue is sung and acted with admirable delicacy and tenderness – and tasteful harpsichord continuo-playing and weighting of the intricate orchestral details serve the intimate drama exquisitely. The moment when the statute comes to life is sung with delectable sensitivity by Céline Scheen (every bit as good as Niquet’s seductive Sandrine Piau). There is an appealing glint of fun from Eugénie Warnier’s L’Amour, and her steelier timbre ensures there is no audible confusion between the two sopranos. An inventive ballet sequence depicts Cupid and the Graces teaching the statue how to move for the first time, and then she learns 10 different kinds of dances (at first hesitantly, but then growing in confidence) – all played with characterful élan and adroitly balanced colours by Les Talens Lyriques. The translucency, wit and compassion of the manifold orchestral contributions play essential parts in the success of the performance, and two choruses are sung with polished discipline by the Arnold Schoenberg Choir; ‘L’Amour triomphe’ juxtaposes polished choral statements with Dubois’s soaring high tenor. Pygmalion’s joyful paean ‘Règne, Amour’ conveys his excitement and bliss with irresistible brilliance and sweetness in its contrasting sections; Dubois’s honeyed suppleness matches Fouchécourt and Christie’s Howard Crook in their primes (and yet Rousset’s direction and orchestra are without equal here).  

As an afterpiece, there is an extensive suite from Les fêtes de Polymnie (1745), comprising an extraordinary overture (its second part festooned with majestic trumpets and thundering timpani rolls) and aptly contrasted selections from the prologue and three entrées – all played with a consummate affinity for Rameau’s quicksilver ingenuity. Although there has been a flurry of good new Rameau releases over the last few years (including several fine accounts of rarities), recordings of an unimpeachable calibre like this don’t come along very often.  

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