Jean Philippe Rameau – Les amants trahis
with Hélène Guilmette, soprano, Philippe Sly, bass-baritone
Luc Beauséjour, conduction and harpsichord
I have to be honest, this recording of Jean Philippe Rameau’s early cantatas will never be among my favourites, not because it is badly sung (actually, the performance is not a problem), but because I cannot but agree with the “prejudice” of the last century, which considered dull and insipid these works, in comparison with Rameau’s great creations of maturity.
The album is simply entitled Les amants trahis (“The betrayed lovers”) with reference to its longest composition, but there are three more cantatas: Thétis, Aquilon et Orithie and Le berger fidèle. Rameau’s interest for the genre was aroused during his sojourn in Paris in 1706-9, when the publication of cantatas was particularly florid. It is possible that he had written many more compositions of this kind, but, with the exclusion of Le berger fidèle, the cantatas survive only in copies of the original manuscripts. They were composed when Rameau was organist at Clermont Cathedral or shortly before and their subjects are taken from mythology or from the pastoral tradition so dear to the XVIII century. From the musical point of view, «while it is true that only Orphée and Le berger fidèle contain hints of the emotional force of the future opera composer, that has much to do with the fact that the cantata was always a relatively lightweight genre, decorative and largely undramatic. There may be little profundity here, but there is much that is charming, witty and thoroughly refined. To his immediate forerunners Rameau owes not only his conception of the cantata but to a large extent its musical style, a peculiar amalgam of French and Italian elements that tends strongly towards the latter. Among the distinctive features of Rameau’s cantatas are the many energetic and technically demanding obbligato lines, in particular the concerto-like bass viol parts of […] Les amants trahis and the fiery tirades in Thétis. Not surprisingly, his work tends to be harmonically less bland than that of his contemporaries, especially in such poignant movements as the first air of Le berger fidèle […]. Rameau’s only other secular vocal music consists of convivial drinking songs and some canons, genres that for him, as for others of his day, were not mutually exclusive» (quote from the New Grove Dictionary).
Thétis, the cantata which opens the recording, was written between 1715 and 1720 and is famous above all because it was quoted by Rameau in his letter to Antoine Houdar de La Motte asking for an opera libretto. Les amants trahis is the longest cantata of Rameau’s catalogue. It was originally written for bass and countertenor. Both singers lament the abandonment of their lovers, but one with sorrow, the other with irony. Aquilon et Orithie is probably the first cantata to be written, when Rameau was still in Lyon or in the first months of his stay in Clermont, and is quoted in the letter to La Motte along with Thétis. Le Berger fidèle, at last, was composed and performed in 1728 and is the only one which survives in the original manuscript.
As I said at the beginning, my reservations about this album are about music, not about performance. This is not always first-rate, but both soprano Hélène Guilmette and bass-baritone Philippe Sly are good singers and, along with harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour, try to get the best from the cantatas. While Sly’s voice is warm and melodious, Guilmette is slightly shrill for my taste, but they have a solid technique and have many passages to show their skills. The best moments of the recording are the duets, when the variety of voices cannot fail to attract the listener’s attention.
The recording technique is not very good. I noticed sometimes that the soloists sing too loud in comparison with the harpsichord and this obliges to turn down the volume, making the instrument inaudible.