The aesthetic wager of Christophe Rousset
Aesthete. This is the word that would best sum up the musical director of Les Talens Lyriques, an ensemble dedicated to baroque, classical and pre-romantic music played on period instruments, sponsored since January 2019 by Mécénat Musical Société Générale. By Séverine Garnier, music critic.
Even though he catches flights and manages his diary from his smartphone, Christophe Rousset is still not living fully in the twenty-first century. The soul of this musician, founder of the ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, is that of a man of the eighteenth century. “As a child, I was fascinated by the past. The harpsichord has always been my time machine”, says Christophe Rousset with a smile. When he was born in Avignon, the “Baroque revival” had barely started. It was not until the 1970s that “classical” musicians began to rediscover their passion for the music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While Bach and Mozart have never left the pantheon of the most played composers, at that time the names of Charpentier, Lully or Couperin were virtually unknown.
Christophe Rousset grew up in Aix-en-Provence, a city where music is king, as loved as its eighteenth century architectural beauty. “I spent my time looking at the magnificent ceiling of the conservatory and trying to slip into the courtyards of old mansions”. He works on the harpsichord. The plucked string instrument opened Christophe Rousset’s doors to the music of Rameau, Couperin and Bach.
The baroque revived by the cinema
1st Prize of the Bruges harpsichord competition and became the accompanist of William Christie. Who is William Christie? One of the most famous of the “baroqueux”, who rediscovered, as the head of the Arts Florissants, the forgotten partitions of the court of Versailles. In 1991, Christophe Rousset created his own ensemble, Les Talens Lyriques, in reference to an opera by Rameau. In 1993, Les Talens Lyriques were asked to produce the soundtrack for a film about the story of a great singer from the Baroque era: the castrato Farinelli. Gérard Corbiau’s film was a great success and the soundtrack sold a million copies. Les Talens Lyriques kept up their momentum releasing an anthology version of Mozart’s Mitridate with Cecilia Bartoli and Natalie Dessay, in 1999.
Lully, this genius!
The ensemble is also remarkable as over recent decades it has been offering magnificent rediscoveries of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s operas.
Louis XIV’s favourite composer did not exactly leave a notable reputation in the annals of music history. “It was said of him that he was boring”, confirms Christophe Rousset. “Personally, I always thought he was genius!”
This instinct for beauty is one of Christophe Rousset’s notable talents. His operatic recordings take music lovers by surprise: Bellérophon, Amadis, Alceste (nominated for the Grammy Awards!) And, most recently, Isis. Christophe Rousset calls it “waking a sleeping beauty”.
1961. Birth in Avignon.
1983. Wins 1st Prize at the Bruges harpsichord competition at the age of 22.
1991. Founds his ensemble, Les Talens Lyriques.
1994. Release of the film Farinelli, by Gérard Corbiau, whose soundtrack, interpreted by Les Talens Lyriques, sells more than a million copies.
2005. Release of his interpretation of the Goldberg Variations, by Jean-Sébastien Bach (Decca).
2007. Publishes a monograph of Jean-Philippe Rameau (Actes Sud), followed in 2016 by that of François Couperin (Actes Sud).
2018. Recreates Faust, by Charles Gounod, in its original version.
2019. Continues his complete series of operas by Jean-Baptiste Lully, publishing the seventh volume: Isis.
Reaching out to young people
The ensemble travels the world, to date they have performed in over 500 concerts in fourty countries, in order to share their passion with as many people as possible. In addition to international productions, the conductor and his musicians continue to develop a whole range of cultural activities in Île-de-France, in colleges in deprived areas. “The idea of sharing music with schoolchildren came when we were in need of rehearsal rooms,” remembers Christophe Rousset. “I proposed a ‘deal’ to the Paris City Hall: a rehearsal of Les Talens Lyriques is an interesting experience and can bring beauty to a gymnasium or a school ... an element which can certainly sometimes be missing!” Involving teachers, parents and children, these educational initiatives, which give teenagers the chance to sing Bach or Haydn, certainly shook things up. “Very quickly, the students seized hold of the thing.”
Modernity at the service of the past
To help these novices to practise music, Les Talens Lyriques and Christophe Rousset have created T@lenschool, three mobile applications allowing you to play the oboe, conduct the orchestra or strum on a harpsichord “like Christophe Rousset”! Because, according to him, “putting someone in contact with beauty is never in vain!”
Thirty years ago, baroque music was a matter only for specialists. Films like Farinelli or Tous les matins du monde had not yet won over a large audience. Thirty years ago, however, Mécénat Musical Société Générale took the gamble of sponsoring those involved in this rediscovery. A pioneer in the field of baroque music, the association decided to sponsor Les Arts Florissants and William Christie in 1987. A young generation of musicians followed its example such as Le Concert d’Astrée, Café Zimmermann or Pygmalion, to name but a few.
And Mécénat Musical helped support them in their development. Today, Mécénat Musical Société Générale continues to sponsor the renewal of baroque with prestigious partners such as the Concert Spirituel, the Ensemble Correspondances and Le Consort. Les Talens Lyriques joined the Mécénat Musical family in January 2019.