CHARPENTIER: Le Malade imaginaire – Les Arts Florissants/ William Christie – Harmonia mundi Gold HMG 501887.88 (2 CDs), 1:30:28 ****:
It is a sign of the times when a company like Harmonia mundi, who was in the forefront of the CD revolution, begins releasing its “late” back catalog at reduced prices (you can get this two-CD set for around $20). I say “late” because the company has actually been around since 1958, but its ascension into world market dominance has happened only since the advent of CDs and the decline of the so-called “majors”, which in the current classical market are really the new “minors” as all of the really important new releases are coming from relatively new labels much smaller in size than the old reliables. But HM, as a factor in the current recorded musical scene, is simply without peer in what they have accomplished over the years. I can think of no other label that has launched so many important careers or come out with so many consistently superb releases with such high production values.
So with this new “Gold” line (this recording is was released in 1992) we get to peer into some of the riches of the past at affordable prices. William Christie has been a mainstay for the company for years, and his recordings have been groundbreaking and revelatory in many instances, as this Charpentier recording shows. The Hypochondriac is the last of Molière’s plays, the one in which he starred and died soon after. It is a strange mix—a ballet with spoken intervals, songs, divertissements, you name it—and it is even stranger that the finicky Molière, who had recently broken with Lully, would turn to the pious, sacred-music-trained composer who studied in Rome before returning to Paris around 1670. He was unknown, new to the theater (and a longshot to hook up with someone like Molière) though the writer was entirely satisfied with the results, even though he did suffer somewhat of a Royal snubbing when no offer for a first production at the court was forthcoming (something of a tradition with important artists in Paris).
Because of some ordinances issued by the King in regard to the ever-controversial Paris Theater, Charpentier was to revise this work, a farce if ever there was one, three separate times, and it was not until 1980 when some parts were discovered that allowed the reconstruction of the original opening of the piece, recorded here for the first time. Christie’s energetic performance, sterling singers and wildly-driven instrumental players give what is undoubtedly the best performance the work has seen since Charpentier’s time. It’s a crazy romp, and maybe not even for everyone as the piece is certainly more glued to the period than a lot of other works of the time, but well worth exploring if you don’t know this side of the composer.
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