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In his lifetime, Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) was primarily
known as a composer of operas, although he also wrote some
important harpsichord music, as well as a famous Treatise on
Harmony.

His operatic compositional career began when he was 50-years
old, with the premiere of “Hippolyte et Aricie,” in 1733. As such, he
was already a seasoned composer of numerous vocal pieces
including a few sacred Motets, and seven secular Cantatas which
are what I heard here. In addition to the seven surviving Cantatas,
this two-CD set also features an earlier version of one of them,
“Aquilon et Orithie.”

With the exception of his “Cantate pour le jour de la Saint-Louis”
from 1740, the other Rameau works in this genre were written
between 1718 and 1730. They contain many of the instrumental
and vocal “seeds” later manifesting in many of Rameau’s works
for the stage. His sensitivity to text and imaginative use of
instrumental color are evident throughout these Cantatas.
These creative tendencies would eventually make Rameau famous.
In fact, the works are “mini-dramas” that invariably address
affairs of the heart or fury of the Gods, in some form or
another. One of them, “Orphee,” tells the familiar story of
Orpheus and Euridice.

With the exception of “Le amants trahis,” which features both
tenor and baritone voices, the remainder of these Cantatas use
a single voice. All four singers on this recording are outstanding.
They include soprano Rachel Elliott, tenor James Gilchrist, baritone
Roderick Williams, and bass Thomas Guthrie.

The accompaniments on period instruments usually involve a handful
of players. Exceptions to this rule are the performances of “Orphee,”
and the aforementioned alternate version of “Cantate pour le jour
de la Saint-Louis,”
which both use ensembles of about 10 players.
Only bassist Mark Levy and harpsichordist Gary Cooper are featured
on all of the pieces.

The performances by the New Chamber Opera Ensemble under
the direction of Gary Cooper are as stellar as those of the singers.
The recorded sound is good; however, I would have preferred
a more “natural” acoustic that did not “mike” the voices as closely.
Nevertheless, this is a minor quibble. This set of Rameau Cantatas
is an important release, and apparently the first of its kind. An
informative booklet features commentaries in English, French and
German; however, the lyrics are only available in French and English.
I recommend it!

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