It will be hard to say goodbye to summer this year. I had a wonderful time, getting some long-term projects finished, then leaving town with my wife for Arizona and Colorado. We hiked down to the White House Ruin in Canyon de Chelly, after which we made off to Durango and Boulder. Farmers’ markets. Nice restaurants. Interesting people. Stimulating music too: in Chinle, Navajo country bands; in Central City, a terrific Handel opera; in Boulder, the Colorado Music Festival and its all-star orchestra, playing Korngold and Gorecki. Doesn’t get much better.
Best recording of the summer? That would be Jordi Savall’s new two-disc set of orchestral suites by Jean-Philippe Rameau, which was waiting for me back in Georgia. As ever, Savall’s crack international ensemble Le Concert des Nations provided the colors and rhythms that made L’Orchestre de Louis XV come not just alive, but kicking. And then I realized, this is perfect summer music. No heavy lifting required. No muddy chromaticism, no complex counterpoint, no Wagnerian length and weight, no tense, terse modernity. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. No, really. If you hear an outstanding performance of a Baroque orchestral suite, you may actually find yourself gravitating up, out of your chair, and executing some sort of dance-like motion. It may look balletic or like the Ministry of Silly Walks, but you’ll just have to dance. And why not have a bit more summer fun, before summer is all gone?
The Back Story
Dance has long been an integral part of Western musical life. When did we not dance, and moreover, dance to music? In the Medieval era musicians improvised estampies and such, usually made up of repeated, contrasting strains of music—a formal structure that still holds in much folk music. You can hear this in Cape Breton fiddling, for instance. In the Renaissance, courtly social dances were often paired together, the stately pavane and lively galliard being one prime example. By the late 17th century, a whole series of dances were considered almost obligatory in compiling a suite, or collection of dances. In fact one of the early meanings of suite is sequence, things which follow. A prelude or ouverture was to be followed by (at the very least) an allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue. Movements in other dance styles – gavotte, minuet, bourrée, polonaise, hornpipe – or in no dance style whatsoever – air, badinerie, variation, réjouissance – were added freely. Composers also exploited the concept of the suite to recycle music from theater works or occasional pieces (something written for the private celebrations of a monarch, perhaps) so that it would be heard more than once and might even fetch additional money somewhere. Among the most attractive works from the Baroque era are orchestral suites by composers like Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687), Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), and Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764). Each composer’s contribution is special, and pleasurable, in its own way.
Every time I hear the music of Rameau I am astonished anew. For L’Orchestre de Louis XV, Savall has assembled instrumental music from four of Rameau’s dramatic spectacles (it seems wrong merely to term them “operas”), and the results are fantastic. The music is immensely colorful: Rameau was a genius at orchestration, changing and blending timbres (strings, woodwinds, keyboards, and more) at the drop of a hat, but always in the service of theatrical expression. You can almost close your eyes and see the stage action unfold. Listen, for example, to his evocation of a courtly bagpiper in this “Musette en Rondeau” from Les Indes Galantes.
Or this “Air pour les amants qui suivent Bellone” from the same suite:
Rameau’s innovative use of color is echoed in his advanced use (for the 18th century) of contrasting motives and bizarre rhythms. One is reminded of Mozart and even Stravinsky – both of whom were also masters of drama and dance music. Listen to the slashing phrases and abrupt contrasts of this “Loure” from Naïs:
Rameau’s daring, his apparent inability to rein in a vivid dramatic imagination, means that you will be constantly engaged and delighted in a way that has few equals in Baroque music. Fortunately, the orchestral suites of Handel and Bach – see below – possess charms other than the purely theatrical, or they might seem rather tame after you’ve heard Rameau.
J. S. Bach, in particular, does not come readily to mind if you’re thinking of Baroque dance or drama. And yet his four Ouvertures or Orchestral Suites, BWV 1066–1069, made up largely of dance pieces, rank with his most popular instrumental works. We might also assume that he composed these fashionable, secular works early in his career, before he got caught up in directing the church music at Leipzig, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Only Suite No. 1 in C Major apparently dates from the pre-Leipzig years. It is also the most conservative stylistically. Its opening number, an elaborate and dignified ouverture, follows the model established by Lully in the preceding century. First you hear the rhythms of a slow processional march, fit for the entrance of a king (exactly the person for whom Lully had been writing). Over those slow, uneven rhythms you’ll also hear an almost-constant flow of shorter notes – that’s Bach’s touch, which always reminds me of the allemandes he otherwise avoided in these four suites.
That entrée or opening march gives way to the B section, which is faster and more contrapuntal (i.e., fugal):
I am more drawn to Suite No. 2, for solo (transverse) flute, strings, and continuo. Here Bach combines the suite genre with that of the concerto, which pits a soloist or solo group against a larger ensemble. He was probably writing for a specific flutist here, perhaps even Dresden’s celebrated Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin. In any case, there were lots of good flute players around by the 1730s, and Bach’s interest in writing concertos – or concerto-like pieces – for that instrument is not surprising. Listen to the way the flute and first violin delicately alternate leadership in this suite’s “Rondeau,” coming together for the main theme but allowing the flute some singular flourishes in the episodes between:
Bach also creates sections in which the solo flute seems to improvise clever, busy lines above the orchestral accompaniment, as in the Double from this suite’s Polonaise:
Probably the most well-known single movement of Suite No. 2 is its Badinerie, in which the solo flute’s hyperactive contribution brings the whole work to a flashy close:
It would tempting at this point to move to one of Bach’s more magnificent opening movements, with their massed trumpets, timpani, and strings making a much more substantial noise; his two D-major suites are glorious in that regard. But if it’s joyful noise you want, you probably already know where to find it. Audiophiles have been celebrating Handel’s two great orchestral suites, Music for the Royal Fireworks and Watermusick, for many years now.
Even in April 1749, when Handel was commissioned to write music for a public celebration of the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, it was clear that the whole occasion, including its sounds, would be big. A few weeks before the event, the Duke of Montague had observed:
I think Hendel now proposes to have but 12 trumpets and 12 french horns; at first there was to have been 16 of each, and I remember I told the King so, who, at that time, objected to their being any musick; but, when I told him the quantity and number of martial musick there was to be, he was better satisfied, and said he hoped there would be no fidles. Now Hendel proposes to lessen the number of trumpets, &c., and to have violeens. I don’t at all doubt but when the King hears it he will be very much displeased.
Eventually Handel bowed to his patron’s wishes and nixed the “violeens,” specifying instead 24 oboes, 12 bassoons, 9 horns, 9 trumpets, side drums, and 3 sets of timpani, borrowed from the Ordnance Office at the Tower of London. He had considered adding contrabassoons and “serpents” (an obsolete bass instrument), but finally crossed them out in the original score. For later performances, Handel put the strings back in, and most versions of the score since then have included them. So it was a big deal in 1958, a year before the bicentenary of Handel’s death, when the young conductor Charles Mackerras (not yet Sir Charles) obtained permission from the BBC to record an extremely large wind band playing the original score of the Fireworks music. He also got a commercial record label, Pye, to contract musicians for a recording date in 1959, and that is the record that has come down to us on a Testament reissue.
The story of the session itself is fascinating. Because Mackerras needed so many wind players (including four contrabassoons and two serpents), the only way he could assemble a professional group was to schedule the session in the wee hours of the morning, well after all of London’s regular concerts and rehearsals had ended. It was a stellar assembly – the horns, for example, were captained by Alan Civil and Barry Tuckwell, probably the only time those two giants of the instrument ever performed side by side in an orchestra. The recording venue was St. Gabriel’s Church, Cricklewood, described in the reissue notes as “a large neo-Gothic building with excellent acoustics.” Everything went swimmingly, and the performance was in the can by 2:30 a.m. on April 14, the actual 200th anniversary of Handel’s death.
Almost nineteen years later to the day, Frederick Fennell assembled the Cleveland Symphonic Winds in Severance Hall, Cleveland, and recorded Mackerras’s edition of the Fireworks music for Telarc. This also has become an audiophile classic. Fennell used a smaller ensemble but drew almost as rich a sound from them. Let’s compare the last minute or so of each conductor’s recording of the “Réjouissance.” First Mackerras:
Then Fennell, who realized the percussion parts a bit differently:
We also have at hand some very fine performances of Watermusick, suites Handel wrote as early as 1715 or ‘17 for royal boating parties on the Thames. One of my favorite recordings is that engineered in the late 1980s by Peter McGrath for Harmonia Mundi USA, showcasing the Bay Area’s period-instrument Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas McGegan. It was a 1991 Stereophile Recording to Die For, and no wonder. The soundstage is suitably broad and deep, the acoustic realistically captured, including a nice boost in warmth given the lower strings by Lone Mountain College Chapel’s wooden floor. There’s a welcome overall sense of detail and presence, very much in line with McGegan’s rhythmically alert approach to the music. Here is their Allegro from the Watermusick Suite in D, HWV 349. It’s less like dance music, more like an Italian concerto movement, but it still makes for very good summer listening.
Jean-Philippe Rameau: L’Orchestre de Louis XV, Suites d’Orchestre. Le Concert des Nations, Jordi Savall. Alia Vox AVSA 9882A+B, 2011. SACD/CD. Comment: Fiery, witty, lyrical, expressive, committed playing from beginning to end. Beautifully recorded by Manuel Mohino in two venues, the Collégiale de Cardona, Catalogne, and the Great Hall of the Arsenal at Metz, France. Spacious acoustic but no sacrifice of detail. Good, if conservative surround-sound mix in the 5.0, although what I especially appreciated was getting to hear every biting down-bow the violins made. Very nice booklet essays too, especially the contribution by Raphaëlle LeGrand, who notes that Louis XV didn’t really have too much to do with Rameau’s career. The four operas excerpted here are Les Indes Galantes, Naïs, Zoroastre, and Les Boreades. Some of these numbers have appeared in other recordings (see below), but collectors should not hesitate to acquire this new set.
Jean-Philippe Rameau: “une symphonie imaginaire.” Les Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski. DG Archiv Produktion B0004478-02 (CD), 00289 477 5578 (SACD/CD), 2005. Comment: Much as Savall did for his Rameau “suites” (above), Minkowski assembled overtures, dances, and characteristic music from Rameau’s operas and ballets, creating a dazzling quasi-narrative that plays very well as a histoire on its own. This was recording was one of the brighter spots in Universal Classics’ short-lived try at high-resolution multichannel.
J. S. Bach: Suites Nos. 1–4 BWV 1066–1069. I Barocchisti, Diego Fasolis. Arts 47649-8, 2006. SACD/CD. Comment: My new favorite. Properly audacious playing of what can be difficult source material, namely Bach’s very German take on French rhythms and structures. Vividly recorded. These folks also have a very good set of Brandenburgs on offer. Ulrich Ruscher, prod., eng.
G. F. Handel: Watermusick. (1) Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan. Harmonia Mundi HMX 2907010, 1988/2000. Robina Young, prod. Peter McGrath, eng. (2) Le Concert des Nations, Jordi Savall. Alia Vox Heritage AVSA 9860, 1993/2008. SACD/CD. Includes Handel’s Fireworks music. Pierre Verany, eng. Nicolas de Beco, remstr. Comment: Savall’s performances beat out McGegan’s by a nose – his contrasts are more intense, the scent of a truly individual interpretation lingering long afterward in the air.
G. F. Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks. (1) Wind Ens., Sir Charles Mackerras. Testament SBT 1253, 1959/2002. Douglas Terry, prod. Robert Auger, eng. Paul Baily, remstr. Includes Harty’s Water Music arr., other works. (2) Cleveland Symphonic Winds, Frederick Fennell. Telarc CD-80038 (CD), SACD-60639 (SACD/CD), 1978/1990/2004. Robert Woods, prod. Jack Renner, eng. Paul Blakemore, remstr. Includes works by Holst, Vaughan Williams, Grainger, et al. (3) Le Concert des Nations, Jordi Savall. See Watermusick (2), above. Comment: Both (1) and (2) use modern instruments, and Fennell adopts tempi similar to Mackerras’s, in spite of his smaller group. Most musical is (3), and I like hearing (1) occasionally because of All Those Oboes. I doubt if I would acquire (2) just for the Handel, but the other selections are also extremely well done.