RAMEAU: Platée, Pigmalion, Dardanus Ballet Suites

Although it would be incorrect to assume that the
origins of the suite were exclusively French, it is safe to say that the popularity of French
ballet in general, and the operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully in particular, led to the creation of
the orchestral suite toward the end of the 1600s. These works were initially formed by
excerpting dance movements from operatic divertissements and placing an overture at the
beginning. Conductor Roy Goodman has revived this practice for a Naxos recording on
which ballet suites from three operas by the Jean-Philippe Rameau are drawn. The result
is a welcome—if a slightly uneven—addition to the growing body of Rameau’s music
recorded on CD. Goodman leads the European Union Baroque Orchestra, an ensemble of
young musicians that is assembled each year to give the performers an opportunity to
train under the direction of a variety of early music specialists. This CD includes
performances by three different ensembles and three different recording sessions dating
from 1999 to 2003.

The first suite is taken from Rameau’s witty comedy Platée, about the eponymous
swamp nymph who falls in love with Jupiter. This music requires a deft touch that will
allow its ironic humor to come through, and in general Goodman and the orchestra
succeed in doing so. The overall sound is clear, buoyant and well-balanced, yet in some
movements, the playing veers toward the prosaic. For example, in the “Air pour des fous
gais et des fous tristes,” the aural depiction of the happy and sad fools would benefit from
greater extremes of tempo and articulation. The performance is undeniably graceful and
elegant, but this music is essentially parodic and deserves to be treated as such. At the
premiere, the dancers, who dressed either as infants or Greek philosophers, were
accompanied by the personification of folly playing a lyre that she had stolen from
Apollo. The entire episode ridicules various conventions of the operatic stage, both
musical and dramatic. Certainly overstatement is in order; the mock seriousness of the
sad fools needs magnification, while the music of the happy fools could be much more
manic. Especially at the end of this movement—when the two groups of dancers mingle
and there are sudden shifts of tempo, dynamics and accent—the sharpest contrast is

Likewise, the two suites that follow are convincing by and large, but occasionally
include a few sections that sound somewhat perfunctory. In Pigmalion, Goodman and the
orchestra artfully maneuver through the rapid changes of meter and tempo that
distinguish the movement entitled “Les différents caractères de la danse,” a movement
intended to accompany Galatea—the statue brought to life—as Cupid teaches her how to
move. Yet later in the same suite the performance starts to falter. Throughout the slow
and lyrical “Air gracieux,” the music remains graceful, but lacks the sense of momentum
that is heard elsewhere. Similarly, Tambourins III and IV from the Dardanus suite are
fast enough but are rhythmically a bit square.

In short, all three suites receive satisfying performances and despite the minor
quibbles that I have mentioned, do justice to Rameau and his music. Of course,
confirmed fans of Rameau will most likely prefer to seek out complete recordings of the
operas excerpted on this CD. Nonetheless, Goodman and the European Union Baroque
Orchestra should be commended for making some of the eighteenth-century’s most
delightful instrumental music available in a highly affordable and unquestionably
pleasing recording.

Michael E. McClellan

image_description=Jean-Philippe Rameau: Platée, Pigmalion, Dardanus Ballet Suites
product_title=Jean-Philippe Rameau: Platée, Pigmalion, Dardanus Ballet Suites
product_by=European Union Baroque Orchestra, Roy Goodman
product_id=Naxos 8.557490 [CD]