Rebel: Les Elemens (CD review)

Also, Rameau: Castor et Pollux. Michi Gaigg, L'Orfeo Barockorchester. CPO 777 914-2.

When you first start listening to this album, you'd swear the music was something written in the modern era, the twentieth or twenty-first centuries, rather than what it is: music written more than 250 years ago. It's a remarkable achievement from a composer we don't hear much about anymore. But conductor Michi Gaigg and her L'Orfeo Baroque Orchestra give the Rebel piece a vivid, wholly fascinating performance in this reissued CPO edition.

The French Baroque composer and violinist Jean-Fery Rebel (1666-1747), who studied under the great composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, wrote his ballet Les Elemens in 1737-38, late in his career, and like most of his music it received indifferent attention from audiences. Rebel was, to say the least, ahead of his time. Fortunately, listeners of the day appreciated him as a virtuoso violinist and conductor, so he didn't starve.

Central to Les Elemens ("The Elements" in the creation of the Earth) is the notion of chaos, in which Rebel attempts to represent all of the notes of the harmonic scale at the same time. It was so innovative for the era, most people simply dismissed it. Today, we see it for its sometimes startling originality, and its effect on the listener cannot help be extraordinary, especially given Ms. Gaigg's lively interpretation and the L'Orfeo ensemble's spirited playing of it.

Rebel wrote the piece in ten brief movements, the first of which, "Le Cahos," begins like something Bernard Herrmann might have written for a Hitchcock movie. Rebel's cluster of dissonances gives way in the next sections to the order his audience would have accepted as God's will in the Creation process. From confusion comes order and harmony, ending in a joyous outburst.

Gaigg and her players create, mold, interpret, and present this music in exactly the form we expect, bringing an energetic presence to the score with elegance and grace. As the work progresses, it morphs into the shape and texture we have come to know from the period, but it's not without any number of surprises along the way. This is music of the Classical period for people who don't usually like music of the Classical period.

With the coupling, we're in more-familiar territory: a suite of orchestral tunes from the opera Castor et Pollux (1737) by French composer and musical theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). The two dozen or so members of the L'Orfeo ensemble are just as active and outgoing in the Rameau as they were with the less conventional Rebel piece. They play with an exuberance of spirit that outshines most such other ensembles dedicated to the playing of early music. And they do so with the utmost refinement; you'll find no overenthusiastic Raggedy-Annie playing here: just stylish performance practice with an attention to period detail.

Anyway, I have to admit that the Rameau item sounds a little tame next to Rebel's work. Still, thanks to Gaigg's attentive direction, the action never flags. The Rameau is a delightful piece of music, made all the more charming by Gaigg's sense of disciplined fun. Love that percussion, too.

Recording Supervisor Michael Sandner and engineer Hans-Jochen Brauns recorded the music at Kirche der Barmherzigen Bruder, Scharding am Inn, Osterreich in June 2007. They originally made the disc for hybrid multichannel/stereo SACD playback, releasing it on the Phoenix label. CPO rereleased it on the current stereo-only edition in 2014. The sound is very open, very wide ranging, very dynamic, and very big given the relatively small size of the ensemble. We hear well-extended highs, a nicely transparent midrange, a fine sense of depth and dimensionality, and at least adequate bass. There's a slight forward edge to the upper mids, but it's hardly an issue. Overall, this is sound that complements the music perfectly.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa