The French Baroque air has not been much recorded, even in comparison with the earlier strophic air de cour. But the veteran ensemble Les Arts Florissants, under American-French director William Christie, having brought exposure to a good deal of previously unknown French music, is not slowing down in this regard, and this delightful collection of "serious and drinking airs" might well stimulate other performers to explore the repertory.
This box set assembles the complete Monteverdi recordings that William Christie and Les Arts Florissants made for harmonia mundi over some fifteen years. Together, they constantly refreshed their inspiration at the wellspring of his finest and most famous madrigals, with a memorable incursion into the sacred repertory of the Selva morale.
Rossi's Oratorio per la Settimana Santa is a masterpiece of the period. Its unusual representation of the Crucifixion draws on elements of both the Passion and the Stabat mater traditions. It also includes an almost operatic scene that vividly depicts a descent into Hades. Its moralistic intent was to move the listener through compassion to repentance. This striking recording from William Christie and the ensemble Les Arts Florissants was originally released in 1989.
Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville, although little known, was much less of a petitmaître than Boismortier or Michel Corrette, for instance. Born in 1711, he occupied quite an important place in early eighteenth-century French musical life. He was a fine violinist, a successful composer of church music and an active personality in the "Concerts Spirituels", public concerts which became established in Paris in 1725.
Purcell's Dido and Aeneas is one of the very few 17th-century works to have entered the operatic "canon" and developed a modern performance tradition before the late 20th century's early-music revival. For listeners who had grown fond of this opera in its "traditional" form, the period-instrument recordings of recent years have provided some odd surprises: an all-female cast (excepting Aeneas); a baritone Sorceress; singing in a style closer to a Restoration playhouse than Covent Garden.
Released in 1995, this Harmonia Mundi CD of five of Handel's Concerti grossi, Op. 6, is an absolute bargain and highly recommended to any lover of great music. Considering William Christie and Les Arts Florissants are among the most brilliant interpreters of Handel, that these gorgeous works afforded them an ideal platform for their talents, and that Harmonia Mundi provided the best possible engineering to capture their glorious sound, this album is an embarrassment of riches not to be missed.
Ornate, opulent, majestic: Handel's music truly exemplifies the Baroque in its elaborate monumentality, which many listeners associate with his vast, dramatic oratorios. Perhaps lesser known, but hardly less significant is Handel's chamber music, which reveals a different kind of artistry, an intimately refined facet of the Baroque spirit. The contrast between the monumental and the intimate in Handel's music is especially interesting since he cultivated chamber music throughout his career, composing works that reflected the development of his style from its Italianate beginnings to the ultimate richness of his late idiom.
Originating by way of an Aix-En-Provence Festival staging, William Christie and his Arts Florissants bring dramatic flair and musical panache to Mozart's great late Singspiel in equal measure. To begin with, there's a dream cast led by the alluring pairing of Hans Peter Blochwitz as Tamino and Rosa Mannion as Pamina. Anton Scharinger makes for an earthy Papageno, Reinhard Hagen is a commanding Sarastro, whilst Natalie Dessay's input as Queen of the Night comes over in both her showpiece arias as steadfast and electrifying. The casting in depth continues: rare is a Magic Flute that can boast singers of the calibre of Willard White and Linda Kitchen in the relatively small roles of Speaker and Papagena. Then, the uniformly warm vocal blend is homogeneously matched, note for note, with the gut strings and less aggressive winds of Les Arts Florissants. Not that there's anything limp or lacklustre about Christie's brisk tempi; whilst sharp editing maintains the theatrical urgency. The melliflously played "magic" flute and exact keyed glockenspiel input for Papageno's bells are further examples of the care which has gone into this state of the art "authentic" interpretation. With a work like The Magic Flute, recorded choices are voluminous. Neville Marriner with his Academy of St Martins-in-the-Fields on Phillips puts in a brave showing, but William Christie maybe wins out in a thorough interpretation which simultaneously celebrates the opera's joy and mystery. –Duncan Hadfield