LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: The Madrigal; The Birth of Opera; England in the 17th Century; French Opera; Opera seria
PERFORMER: Various artists
CATALOGUE NO: HMX 2908001/05
It reflects well upon Harmonia Mundi that its catalogue represents most of the main strands in the development of Baroque music. The three categories in its Pathways of Baroque Music – how well the French mind responds to such titles – are ‘The Secular Voice’, ‘Cathedrals and Chapels’ and ‘Instrumental Music’.
With headings such as these it is virtually impossible to overlook any significant aspect, yet one or two major developments are all but omitted, as they do not fit comfortably under them. Hardest done by is Handel oratorio, represented solely by a 14-minute excerpt from Messiah. There should, too, be a sample of Handel’s treatment of the ‘dramatic’ libretto, though Handel opera is generously catered for.
Bach fares much better in the choral sphere, while his ‘dramma per musica’ and miscellaneous secular vocal works, on the other hand, are entirely absent from the Baroque gospel according to Harmonia Mundi. Such omissions are dangerously misleading for anyone who might not know of the existence of such pieces.
However, in most other respects the project has been assembled with great care, reflecting not only almost two centuries and more of music, roughly 1550-1770, but also the last quarter of a century’s evolution in period instrument and vocal performance practice. For these reasons, above all, the survey will be most rewarding to those who want to explore the entire project rather than invest in any one of the three five-CD packs.
The hardest task for the compilers must have been the ‘Secular Voice’ volume. Monteverdi and Cavalli are represented by operatic excerpts, and English theatre music and the rich song legacy of Dowland, Byrd and Purcell are sympathetically covered.
As we might expect, the French tragedie en musique, comedic ballet and opera-ballet often reveal the most discerning choice of extract, from works by Lully, Charpentier, Rameau and others: this disc and one of Italian opera sera by Handel, Vivaldi and Graun are among the most rewarding.
In addition to Bach and Handel, the ‘Cathedrals and Chapels’ volume includes a rich variety of pieces by Gesualdo, Monteverdi, Cavalli, Schutz, Schein, Rosenmuller, Buxtehude and Purcell. Pergolesi and Vivaldi are also included, but again it is the French repertoire which has been most generously catered for: Lully, Charpentier, Frangois Couperin, Delalande, Dumont, Campra and Rameau all make appearances.
Oratorio is represented by Luigi Rossi, Schutz, Caldara and Almeida. The ‘Instrumental Music’ volume is fairly evenly divided between solo keyboard music, sonatas, and orchestral suites and concertos. Among the finest things here are William Christie and Davitt Moroney in harpsichord suites by Rameau and Louis Couperin; music by Mariniand Biber played by Romanesca; and sonatas by Corelli and Muffat played by London Baroque.
This is a stimulating and improving journey: as an introduction to the infinitely wide range of forms and emotions, the contrasts and paradoxes, which characterise the Baroque, it may well seem almost ideal. Nicholas Anderson