The Compact Collection

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The Independent Culture

The principal charm of Rameau's operas lies in the way their mood might suddenly switch from lively conversation to infectious dancing, then draw inwards for a profound soliloquy. Nothing else of the period is quite so unpredictable or sexy. Dardanus, the son of Jupiter and Electra, was the founder of the royal house of Troy. For his Dardanus, Rameau sets his operatic prologue in Venus's palace, where the Goddess of Love herself exhorts the Pleasures to enact Dardanus's story.

There are two versions of the opera - the "baroque tragedy" of 1739 and the "rococo drama" of 1744. Conductor Marc Minkowski opts for the former as the more musically compelling, though he imports a six-minute "Prison Scene" from 1744. Why? Turn to disc 2, track 9 and his reasons become clear. Dardanus (superbly sung by John Mark Ainsley) cries of "the shame and grief of sombre despair and cruel rule" to music that, in its dun colouring and bleak harmonies, falls some way between Berlioz and Schumann. Take away the harpsichord continuo and you'd never guess the music's true provenance.

Another import from 1744 is the breathless "Bruit de guerre" which Rameau inserts at the end of Act 2 at the point where Dardanus unexpectedly blurts out his confession of love for Iphise. But then Dardanus is chock full of spirited ballet movements (there are 30 in all). Try the third scene of Act 3 (disc 2, tracks 4-6), music for the Phrygian celebrations, or the magnificent chaconne that closes the work. Mireille Delunsch is a credibly seductive Venus and Véronique Gens an animated Iphise. Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre are consistently vital, free of the clinical sheen that can make period performances into frenetic relics.

But there are many ways of breathing new life into old repertory. One in particular finds the brilliant young Japanese accordionist Mie Miki tackling a generous and adventurous programme of 19 Domenico Scarlatti sonatas. Miki makes glorious music where many a dutiful harpsichordist merely spins notes. Her range of colour, dynamic and nuance, not to mention her lightning finger velocity and musicianship, consistently astonishes. Sample the "hunting horn" C major sonata (track 4) or the flamenco-style strumming of the D minor (track 6). It's fabulous playing, both in its virtuosity and its poetry.

Another baroque refresher arrives with Jacques Loussier's celebrated Play Bach albums Nos 1 and 2, originally issued on two London Globe LPs, which have now become two Decca CDs (quite unnecessarily, given that both programmes could easily fit on a single disc). Granted, the playing style sounds a little dated, and the ubiquitous Air is so indelibly associated with a certain cigar ad that one's enjoyment is, let's say qualified. But turn to the First Keyboard Partita (which, together with the Air, is on Vol 2) or the noble Fugue No 5 from the "48" (Vol 1) and you hear a manner of reinterpretation (piano, bass, drums) that mirrors significant aspects of both Bach and jazz. The recordings are boxy but clear.

Rameau Minkowski DG Archiv 463 476-2 (2 discs)

Scarlatti Miki Vanguard Classics/Complete Record Co 99193

Bach Loussier Vols 1 & 2 Decca 157 561-2 & 157 562-2

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