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Glories of the French Baroque – Brenda Rae sings Rameau

David Barmby

A valiant effort by young musicians towards realising a too-ambitious project.
Glories of the French Baroque – Brenda Rae sings Rameau

When the great French Baroque composer and music theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau died in 1764 it was the end of an era. It is perhaps understandable that following the French Revolution the rich and complex opera of the Ancien Régime was carefully shelved in libraries and private collections and remained silent for over 200 years. It has only been in the past half-century that this unique theatrical repertoire has been dusted off, edited and restored to be heard once again in all its glory. Happily, through the esteemed work of the Societé Jean-Philippe Rameau a new critical edition is in preparation. As millions now visit Versailles each year and witness, if perhaps somewhat quizzically, its unrestrained grandeur and dizzying elegance, we can only hope that the operatic music of Rameau with its particular voice types, instrumentation, ballet, costuming and sets will soon return to the world’s great opera houses.

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However, what some regard as the incomparable beauty of the tragédies en musique, opéra-ballets and comédies lyriques by Rameau, needs to be upheld and savoured within its own particular context. With its own specific temperament and conditions for performance, it is anything but adaptable ‘universal music’. The repertoire presents daunting challenges for the modern performer; many ensembles have tried and failed in their first attempts to realise it. Apart from the rarity of editions, there are unambiguous requirements that cannot be compromised. For example, Rameau’s love affair with the baroque bassoon playing in melodic alto/haute-contre is central to his sound world, yet these husky, soft instruments have a very different voice to the louder and more focused tone of the modern bassoon. Similarly his wooden flutes have a breathy, dozy, vocal quality tailored to his lean and succinct melodic writing, requiring to be balanced by strings strung with gut and not steel. An orchestral innovator, Rameau used clarinets in some works that were particularly savoured for their specific sound quality quite distinct from the modern clarinet. The pitch at the time was lower than elsewhere in Europe further colouring the music with its own lustre and richness, enhanced by the French double harpsichord with its sonorous tenor and bass. Once these demands are met, we can begin to address this complex and highly articulate style with its individual expressivity, ornamentation and shaping. In sum, Rameau’s sophisticated music depends on a fine balance within the ensemble using the instruments that he wrote for. It needs to be understood on its own stylistic terms and conveyed accordingly.

I have wrestled with this review as I know that the intent of the young ANAM orchestra was positive and open minded, and doubtless the students involved learned a great deal from their week with Australian harpsichordist and director Benjamin Bayl who clearly demonstrated ample preparation and a close affinity with this aesthetic throughout the concert. But given that this was a mainstage performance in the 2017 Melbourne Festival’s scant music program, I question whether this was a viable artistic experience in terms of aesthetic, philosophy and meaning. I am aware that the performance has been very positively reviewed by others, but I am resolved that this project was too ambitious given the rehearsal time allowed, if not an artistic misconception. The racket made by three modern bassoons entirely swamped the balance of the ensemble throughout. Although some baroque bows were distributed throughout the ensemble, the sound of the steel strings was harsh and brash, and a relay team of pianists playing harpsichord without apparent direction was bewildering. Missed entries and early entries also dismayed. It was disappointing that the Webern-like prelude to Act V of Les Boréades was an empty gesture. Much other music was under-prepared or performed with a paper-thin understanding of shaping and style. Instrumentally, we received a shadow, a mere veneer of the original.

There were three very positive elements, however, to the performance. As mentioned above, Bayl’s direction was succinct, well-prepared and expressive. He clearly had worked hard to get the ensemble as good as it could get, though I am sure he would have greatly wished for a few more rehearsals. The fine singing of American soprano Brenda Rae who is also new to this repertoire showed clear evidence of careful preparation and close stylistic understanding, though her da capo aria ornamentation was sometimes stylistically misjudged. The trumpet playing, crowning Régnez, plaisirs where the Native American peace pipe is finally exchanged in Les Indes galantes, also impressed.

2 ½ stars out of five

Brenda Rae, soprano
ANAM Orchestra
Benjamin Bayl, harpsichord/director

Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre
Friday 6 October 2017

Presented by the Australian National Academy of Music and Melbourne Festival

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

David Barmby is former head of artistic planning of Musica Viva Australia, artistic administrator of Bach 2000 (Melbourne Festival), the Australian National Academy of Music and Melbourne Recital Centre.

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