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Nowadays, with over a century of recorded music at our disposal we are in a better position than ever before to observe the evolution in performing styles. The 250th anniversary of Rameau’s death in 1764 provided today’s historically informed musicians with an impetus to explore his music with renewed vitality while encouraging enlightened record companies to re-examine their back catalogues. It was above all, during the 1940s and 1950s that precious seeds were sown in the rediscovery of Baroque music and it is from these decades that the present recordings on 9 CDs belong.

The earliest among them are excerpts from the opéra-ballet Les Indes galantes and the six instrumental Concerts en sextuor. These last-mentioned are 18th-century arrangements by an unknown hand of the composer’s Pièces de clavecin en concerts as well as of five solo harpsichord pieces. Both discs are of recordings made in 1942 and 1952, and conducted by the French violinist Maurice Hewitt. Hewitt founded his own orchestra in 1939 and it played a prominent role in France in the rediscovery of Baroque music. It is the Orchestre de Chambre Hewitt that features here, but, while the performances are fascinating from an historical perspective, they have not stood the test of time as robustly as some others. These are for me the least interesting discs – though the singing of baritone Camille Maurane is rewarding.

More satisfying by far are excerpts from the tragédie-lyrique Hippolyte et Aricie conducted by Roger Desormière and recorded on the L’Oiseau-Lyre label in 1950, and a now legendary disc of operatic excerpts directed by Nadia Boulanger. The former was my own introduction in 1960 to Rameau’s operatic music and the emotionally charged singing of high tenor Raymond Amade (Hippolyte) and Geneviève Moizan (Phèdre) affects my sensibilities as strongly now as it did over half a century ago. Desormière’s direction is full of insights and Rameau’s dances spring to life under his baton. The original tapes show occasional signs of deterioration as in the elegiac Chaconne but, taking into account the overall picture it is a small matter.

Boulanger’s programme, recorded by French Decca in 1953 offers a characteristically discerning conspectus of Rameau’s stage works. Notable among the singers are sopranos Irma Kolassi and Flore Wend, tenor Paul Derenne and bass Doda Conrad, but for me the most enchanting moments are contained in a little ballet figuré for strings from the pastorale héroïque Zaïs, and exuberant Tambourins from the 1757 revival of Hippolyte et Aricie. Boulanger’s direction is tenderly spoken, alluringly articulated and full of expressive nuances. This is a disc to treasure.

No Rameau compilation of this period would be complete without contributions by the Swiss tenor Hugues Cuénod and the bass Gérard Souzay. Cuénod sings two chamber cantatas, L’Impatience and Diane et Actéon; the latter work is now known to be by Boismortier. Recorded in 1950, they demonstrate Cuénod’s well- known gifts in conveying textual subtlety with an impeccable – if dated – stylistic aplomb. Souzay is rather shamefully relegated to bonus track status which does however include a fine declamation of ‘Nature, amour’ from the tragédie- lyrique Castor et Pollux. Souzay’s recordings were made in 1953.

The remaining discs contain Hans Rosbaud’s celebrated recording from the 1956 Aix-en-Provence Festival of the comédie-lyrique Platée, with a memorable performance by French high tenor Michel Sénéchal in the title role, and pianist Marcel Meyer’s widely and justly acclaimed playing of the composer’s solo keyboard music. Both have been released many times over and can be found in other formats. In summary, this box offers us a precious link with the past. We do things more correctly now, or think we do, but we do not always do them better and we certainly owe a debt of gratitude to pioneers such as Boulanger, Desormière and others for their impassioned responses to this richly inventive and colourful repertoire. Alas, there is no accompanying booklet and some of the information on the individual covers is hopelessly muddled or misprinted. Boulanger’s disc suffers most, but then I very well remember that the original vinyl sleeve was inaccurate, too. These trifling matters should not deter readers from seeking out these fascinating and mainly rewarding glimpses into our past.

Nicholas Anderson Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Early Music Today, 2016 - ©Rhinegold Publishing