The orchestra ‘Le Concert des Nations,’ conducted by Jordi Savall, enriches the varied programme of Italian music festival, Mito, with an historical hint of Baroque music. The programme is thrilling and completely dedicated to the controversial and tormented figure of Jean-Philippe Rameau. The outcome is an accurate and sensitive recreation of the atmosphere and the music played at Louis XV’s court.

Through the centuries, Rameau’s fame has been more as an essayist, than for his music. Moreover, he has been constantly and unfairly involved in theoretical disputes, about which incidentally he was never really affected by nor interested in. He has been considered a promoter of a difficult, esoteric and pedantic music against the naturalness of Jean-Baptiste Lully. His music has also been opposed to Italian music and even to German music after he died. Savall and his orchestra have helped to bring to attention some of his neglected works.

Jordi Savall © David Ignaszewski
Jordi Savall
© David Ignaszewski

All the pieces in this concert were executed as suites for orchestra, without any mise-en-scène or singer. First performed was Naïs (1748), a pastorale héroïque composed of a prologue and three acts on a libretto by Louis de Cahusac. Naïs is a water-nymph, desired by the sea-god Neptune. Neptune, after transforming himself into a mortal, confronts Telemus and Asterion, who also aim to win the girl over at the Isthmian Games of Corinth. The magnificent Ouverture opens with a war noise that musically depicts the screams and turbulent movements of the Titans and the Giants, leading in medias res to the intrigue, with a succession of tough movements and wild interruptions.

In 1735, following the contentious publication of his Hippolyte et Aricie, Rameau preferred to dedicate himself to a lighter and easier endeavour, choosing an opera-ballet form for his Les Indes Galantes. This opera-ballet is characterized by a certain exoticism that was spreading all over Europe at this time, a trend set off by the terrific accounts of travels made to America by explorers. Les Indes Galantes stands out for its spectacular exotic images, defined by complex but lively movements. The piece feels Romantic, in the intensity of the dramatic character descriptions. The same bipartite French Ouverture must have been innovative for its melodic and timbre variety. Not to mention the insertion of an instrumental trio of two oboes and bassoons.

The second entrée, Air des Incas pour la devotion du Soleil is fascinating. Huascar, the tremendous Incas minister of religion, loves the princess, Phani, though his love is not reciprocated. Two spectacular moments mark the entrée: the holy invocation of the sun, with a clear allusion to Masonry and the earthquake and the eruption provoked by Huascar, who proceeds to die himself under a flow of fire. The final Chaconne is a magnificent and sumptuous page of music.

With Zoroastre (1749), Rameau comes back to Masonic allusions: the first part is a vivid picture of Abramane, a powerful oppressor. Following this introduction is a calmness, raising hope again. The second part is the triumph of Zoroastre, who frees the subjected people and brings them back to safety. This opera is permeated by the symbolic conflict between good and evil. The same allegory reoccurs in the last opera performed: Les Boréades, in which the contrast between light and darkness, and between wisdom and ignorance allude to the figures of the illuminated chief against the barbarous tyrant.

Savall conducts with solemnity: he is hieratic on the pedestal but still in full sync with his orchestra, which follows his sustained rhythms flawlessly, and with the utmost fluidity. The choice to play Rameau without singers or any staging offers the audience a chance to enjoy the profundity and virtuosity of his music. Rameau is capable of depicting subtle sentiments and conflicts as well as more tragic or epic situations with mastery and modernity. A mise-en-scène, choreography, ballet or costumes would have acted as distractions for the audience, who instead are enchanted by this music as it stands alone. ‘Le Concert des Nations’ is not just made up of ancient instruments, which emit sounds of arcane beauty. These musicians also aspire to recreate, as closely as possible, the music playing style of the past. This is achieved through an unceasing study of the score. As a result they have struggled to rejuvenate, or re-interpret the music in a modern and lively way. Of particular note was the Musette Tendre of Naïs, played with almost moving tenderness, and the growing serenity of the flutes and violins in the Air tender en Rondeau from Zoroastre, during which all previous conflicts seem to be suspended in a moment of calm.