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Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, January 2009

Les élémens (1737) was the last in a series of compositions that Jean-Féry Rebel referred to as symphonies de danse. The liner notes to this release are incorrect in praising him for having created “a “purely instrumental genre,” as there is plenty of evidence that the composer intended these works as display vehicles for the dancers of the Académie Royale. We even know that the first, entitled Caprice (1711), was scored to show off the qualities of the celebrated ballerina Françoise Prévost, as was Les caractères de la danse (1715), which she danced before Russia’s Peter I.

Les élémens was to eclipse the rest, not on account of its quality, but because of its impressive opening pages. They were meant to provide an audible and visual representation of the creation of the universe, and its distillation into the four Empedoclean elements of air, fire, water, and earth. (This isn’t as abstruse as it may sound. Medicine was based for centuries on this division, and we still use words created from this source to describe behavior: choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, and sanguine. Nielsen derived his Symphony No. 2, “The Four Temperaments,” from them, as did Hindemith in his Theme and Variations of the same nickname.) The work begins with a chord comprised of every note in the D Minor harmonic scale. It represents undifferentiated chaos, and continues into a brilliant prélude depicting the primal order emerging from that sound. Then, as Rebel himself wrote, “To designate each particular Element in this confusion, I resorted to the most recognized of conventions. The Bass expresses Earth in notes slurred together and played with tremolos; the Flutes, in the rise and descent of their melody, imitate the course and murmur of Water; Air is painted by sustained tones followed by trills played on the piccolos; finally, the violins represent Fire by their liveliness and brilliance.”

Sadly, none of Rebel’s other choreographic symphonies have been recorded, but in compensation, we have four versions of Les élémens from which to select. I haven’t heard Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre (Erato 382906), but Hogwood/Academy of Ancient Music (L’Oiseau-Lyre 475 9100) and Goebels/Musica Antiqua Cologne (Archiv 445824) are certainly competitive. Both offer good value, the former offset less by its very good analog sound than by a miserly disc length of fewer than 45 minutes.

As for the L’Orfeo Baroque Orchestra: it was cofounded by Michi Gaigg in 1996. The group reflects Gaigg’s vision of an authentic Baroque ensemble, one in which an edge to the instrumental tone of each section is standard practice, and the strings in particular have a bite to the articulation of fast figurations that emphasizes energy. The percussion and sharply defined string chords that start off Rebel’s Loure I, “La Terre et l’Eau,” offer a good example. Faster than Goebel, this element of earth treads heavily, but also swaggers. Better still is the Chaconne, “Le Feu,” where the kinetic excitement of the quickly played, cleanly articulated runs provide an excellent approximation of Rebel’s flickering fire. That isn’t to say the orchestra is incapable of delicacy: the “Rossignols” movement from the Les élémens, and Hébé’s second air from the Castor et Pollux suite, both show an ability to draw down the vigor while maintaining focus—though I found Gaigg’s phrasing a bit stiff in the former, when compared to Hogwood.

The close yet resonant, churchly acoustics chosen for this album successfully overcome the wiry tone that I’d noted in a previous L’Orfeo recording of Wagenseil symphonies (cpo 999 450). I also found no evidence here of the intonational problems that dogged that release. Heard in a five-speaker setup, the SACD sound was slightly fuller than in stereo, but not enough to make a notable difference.

Ultimately, I find Gaigg and L’Orfeo marginally more exciting, colorful, and better defined in their playing than Goebel and the Musica Antiqua Cologne. In the Rameau, there is less room for doubt: Gaigg makes far more of the music than Cambreling/SW German RSO (Hänssler Classic 93018), while doing a significantly better job at bringing out its theatrical intensity than Brüggen/Orchestra of the 18th Century (Philips 426714). In short, this is definitely a fine release, and one to get if you enjoy either work—though admittedly, the album could have been longer. Now will someone please convince Gaigg to give us the other choreographic symphonies of Rebel?

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