Ten years ago in Paris Raphaël Pichon founded Pygmalion, a superb ensemble of period specialists, and since then they have steadily built a fine discography; their Bach Masses on the Alpha label have garnered raves as have their Rameau, but this latest release should raise their stock considerably.
In order to bring to life the genesis of opera, Pichon has contrived the sort of spectacle that the Medici court was famed for at the end of the 16th century. We all know the story of the Florentine Camerata, though few examples of their experiments are extant, but we do have the intermedi of Peri, Malvezzi, Marenzio and others along with the fragments of operas by Peri, Caccini and Gagliano.
Recreating a grand wedding festivity, two mini-operas on the stories of Apollo and Orpheus are bookended by celebrations of love and marriage. From the tenor’s opening cry of Stravaganza D’amore, joined by choirs, sackbuts, cornetti and a lavish continuo with every imaginable plucked instrument, I was hooked and listened through both discs entranced.
The soloists are splendid. Sophie Junker produces a gorgeous sound; her O che felice giorno by Caccini, an early highlight. Renato Dolcini raises a smile with Brunelli’s witty Non havea Febo ancora (listen out for the virtuosic cornett flourish) and later with Un guardo, un guard’appena from Gagliano’s Daphne caresses one moment, dazzles the next, his passagio work rivalling Nigel Rogers at his finest.
Pichon’s dramatic genius is evident when he inserts into the Hades scene Marenzio’s sombre madrigal Udite, lagrimosi spirti d’Averno and doubles the voices with sackbuts – a coup de théâtre. The finale uses a familiar tune (thanks Respighi): Buonamente’s Ballo del Granduca as a refrain provides a satisfying conclusion.
Pichon has realised the project with grand imagination and flair; he is not afraid to exploit the sensuality of the material and his approach recalls Savall at his most flamboyant. Antiphonal effects with gleaming sopranos revelling in suspensions underpinned by firm basses and all those lutes, theorbos and harps thrumming and strumming underneath provide many a moment of toe-curling ecstasy – the disc might be issued with a warning in puritan states.
Recorded at the Chapelle Royale, Versailles in stunning detail surrounded by a luminous halo of reverberation and beautifully packaged with superb documentation, Harmonia Mundi has done it again. After their Le Concert Royal de la Nuit by Sébastien Daucé and Ensemble Corespondances took out last year’s Limelight Opera CD of the Year, I’m tipping this latest release to repeat the feat.