Magnificent Rameau. A lamentable loss to music and endless frustration for music lovers that this master of orchestral writing, whose wealth of original melodic invention and unparalleled sense of orchestral color is underpinned by his lush and daring harmonic ingenuity, didn't write symphonies or orchestral suites and concertos like Bach or Haendel. A gap all the more paradoxical and surprising that Rameau lived in a time and place (Paris in the 1750s) that saw the birth of the French Symphonie, and that he himself was the recognized master of orchestral writing, so much so that his adversary Charles Collé could pay him a back-handed compliment, saying that "he wanted to write music and to this end put everything into ballets, dances and violin airs" at the expense of what was, for Collé, the core and essence of the opera, the genre in which Rameau primarily poured his musical genius: the "scenes" (arias and recitatives).
Until Rousset's collection, recorded in 1997, the closest one could get to the symphonies Rameau never wrote were the orchestral suites excerpted from his operas, made of freely chosen selections from the ballet and pantomime numbers (strangely called "Airs", but NOT sung). And after all, it was Rameau himself who established the precedent for doing so, when he published, shortly after the original run of the opera production, not the complete score of Les Indes Galantes, but a selection of four Suites or "Concerts", reshuffling the original orchestral numbers not in the order in which they appeared in the opera-ballet but according to tonalities (in truth, Rameau added some sung arias and chorus numbers as well, and one complete act, that of the "Savages", written after the opera's initial run and not yet performed when the score was published; also, the score was not an orchestral one, but a reduction for keyboard).
Anyway, there's a tradition for those orchestral suites that's about as old as the Long Playing record: Fernand Oubradous recorded Suites from Les Indes Galantes (for Pathé), Les Fêtes d'Hébé and Platée (and the small French label Orhpée), Victor Desarzens and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra of Platée (Guilde Internationale du Disque), and the pre-period instruments era also witnessed recordings of exceprts from Les Indes Galantes, Les Surprises de l'Amour, Castor & Pollux, Les Paladins. But it's really with the rise of period-instrument ensembles and "Historically-Informed" performance practice that those suites from operas became popular. The great ancestor was Collegium Aureum, with Suites from Indes Galantes and Dardanus in the early 1960s (Rameau: Les Indes Galantes; Dardanus [Germany]), but the wave rose in earnest starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with collections by Kuijken and La Petite Bande (Hippolyte et Aricie, J. Ph. Rameau: Hippolyte Et Aricie (Suite)), Malgoire and La Grande Ecurie et la Chambre du Roy (La Prince de Navarre for CBS, not reissued on CD), Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists (Dardanus, Rameau: Dardanus), Herreweghe and La Chapelle Royale (Indes Galantes, Rameau: Les Indes Galantes). Between 1986 and 1998 Frans Brüggen leading the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century devoted 5 wonderful CDs (first on Philips then Glossa) to those orchestral Suites (Rameau: Les Boreades Dardanus (Suites), Rameau: Castor Et Pollux Suite / Purcell: 3 Fantasias, Les Indes Galantes, Jean-Philippe Rameau: Orchestral Works and Rameau - Orchestral Suites ~ Naïs * Zoroastre / Orchestra of the 18th Century * Brüggen).
So Rousset's approach is different: instead of selecting from one or two operas, opera-ballets or ballets, he offers the Overtures of 16 of Rameau stage works - Les Surprises de l'Amour gets two, the Prologue and the Prelude to Act I. Missing are those of La Princesse de Navarre, La Guirlande, Daphnis et Eglée, Les Sybarites (aka Sibaris), La Naissance d'Osiris, Anacréon, Nélée et Myrthis, Zéphyre, Io, and - the most surprising absence of all - Les Boréades. In all honesty, in some cases, I don't even know if these works have an Overture, and I'm not even sure how much of the score of Io - an unfinished ballet that Rameau may have been working on at his death - remains. Not that there's anything in these omissions to take Rousset and L'Oiseau-Lyre to task: at 69:48, the CD is fully stacked.
As great and exciting as are the collections of Brüggen or the "Imaginary Rameau Symphony" conconcted by Minkowski in 2005 (Rameau: Une Symphonie Imaginaire), freely selecting various orchestral excerpts from multiple Rameau operas, I would venture to say that this Rousset compilation is THE Rameau collection to start with, the one to have if you have only one, the one not to miss even if you have a hundred of them, and the one to offer your friends at Christmas (or on any occasion). You want a great introduction to Rameau? Rousset offers you 17 of them for the price of one!
When, in 1733, the success of Hippolyte & Aricie established overnight the fame of the then 50-year-old composer, his colleague Campra said that he had written in that opera enough music to make ten of them, and arguably, it is in his Overtures that Rameau poured the very best of his imagination and knowledge. In those 17 Overtures there is enough music to make 100 operas for the centuries to come. Track after track the music displays exhilarating sweep and invention, played by Rousset with vivacity and an elegant lightness if not with the same vigor and sense of instrumental color as Brüggen and Minkowski, concluding and topped off by the incredible Overture of Acanthe et Céphise, with its brutal bass ostinato and violent timpani thwacks (originally supposed to be cannon shots) anticipating Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, its shooting flutes and fanfaring clarinets (the score, whose facsimile is available on the International Music Scores Library Project and again eternal gratitude to them, calls the passage "Fireworks"), and its brilliant and triumphant concluding Fanfare. This isn't just "feel-good" music, it's "get a kick" music, "shoot up to the stars" music, music to dance, music to scream, music to send you running up on the walls like Fred Astaire in "Royal Wedding". In fact I'm buying a number of copies to give my friends, and I won't wait until next Christmas.