Rameau is by far best-known for his operas. French opera can be a bit difficult to warm up to at first, so it’s good to start off with some orchestral suites from several of the operas and the works for court. Try the suites from Naïs and Le Temple de la gloire, played by the Bay Area’s own Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas McGegan (Harmonia Mundi, 1995).
- Platée, an unusual comedy that Rameau composed late in life, was given influential revivals in a 1999 Paris Opéra production, directed by Laurent Pelly, and a coproduction by the Mark Morris Dance Group and New York City Opera, directed by Morris, which toured widely. The Paris production is available on DVD.
- William Christie has conducted the serious operas in strong performances available on DVD. Les Indes galantes is a particularly sumptuous performance, with lavish costumes and dancers, as well as a most interesting commentary on the special features.
- Beyond category: Rameau wrote a collection of pieces that defy generic definition. Called the Pièces de Clavecin en concert (Pieces for keyboard in concert [that is, with other instruments]), they’re not exactly concertos, and not exactly chamber music, either. One thing’s for sure: They are fantastic music. Rameau’s harpsichord music is among some of the most virtuosic ever written. Recordings by Peter Sykes are highly recommended.
- Check out the famous “Les Cyclopes,” as played by Alan Cuckston, free streaming from this link.