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Hyperion Records

CDA68071/2 - Rameau: Pièces de clavecin
Study for the right arm of Lucretia (1518) by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)
CDA68071/2

Recording details: February 2014
The Music Room, Hatchlands Park, Surrey, United Kingdom
Produced by Tim Oldham
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: 3 November 2014
DISCID: 910FE61C E60E3111
Total duration: 128 minutes 22 seconds

Pièces de clavecin
Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord) 2CDs 3 November 2014 Release   This album is not yet available for download
CD1
Prélude  [2'04]
Allemande I  [4'08]
Allemande II  [1'55]
Courante  [1'52]
Gigue  [2'23]
Vénitienne  [1'29]
Gavotte  [1'28]
Menuet  [1'06]
Allemande  [3'47]
Courante  [1'36]
Tambourin  [1'17]
Les soupirs  [3'57]
La boiteuse  [1'01]
CD2
Allemande  [6'37]
Courante  [3'51]
Sarabande  [2'40]
Les trois mains  [4'38]
Fanfarinette  [2'37]
Le triomphante  [1'28]
Gavotte  [7'26]
L'indifferente  [1'41]
Menuets I & II  [3'02]
La poule  [4'42]
Les triolets  [3'59]
Les sauvages  [2'18]
L'enharmonique  [5'41]
L'egiptienne  [3'41]

Gramophone-Award-winning harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani has recorded Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin in the historic setting of the Music Room at Hatchlands Park in Surrey. This is a masterclass for the instrument, confirming this young artist as a truly great player: in the words of International Record Review ‘his technique is beyond criticism and his inherent musicianship goes far deeper than mere surface understanding … it is difficult not to warm to such a musician’.

This double album comprises the whole of Rameau’s output of keyboard suites, and Esfahani rejoices in its wealth of genius, its excitement and drama. Rameau is a composer whose revival is ongoing, and his unique combination of the witty and the cerebral, the light and the curmudgeonly, abounds throughout his harpsichord music.


Of the great composers before the 1750s whose works form the core of the literature for solo harpsichord, Jean-Philippe Rameau appears as an odd man out for a couple of reasons. Firstly, while Rameau produced quite a bit of music for the harpsichord in his earlier years, and was clearly an accomplished player, it seems that once he achieved success as a man of the theatre he turned his attentions away from the instrument. Secondly, although his keyboard music still occupies a significant place in the modern concert repertoire—for harpsichordists and pianists alike—it is striking how little there is: five suites and a couple of other pieces that survive only in manuscripts.

Compared to four books of pieces by Couperin and volumes upon volumes by J S Bach and his family, this is indeed a slim output. But what a wealth of genius it reveals. What excitement and wit and drama. ‘Wit’ should be the emphatic word here, for even in such traditional movements as allemandes and courantes Rameau exercises the art of parody and turns such tropes on their heads in a manner equalled only by Sebastian Bach. Unlike Bach, however, Rameau is sure to turn the joke outwards, as we might expect of a composer for the stage. In this sense, he is more like Mozart or Handel. And yet, when he shows his more wistful side, there is a quality of nostalgic pastoralism which at times resembles the musical spirit of Dvorák. Rameau is a composer whose revival is ongoing, and his unique combination of the witty and the cerebral, the light and the curmudgeonly, abounds throughout his harpsichord music.

At first sight, little about the Premier livre de pièces de clavecin of 1706—consisting of a single Suite in A minor—would seem to hint at Rameau’s later glories. The general outline of movements in this little oblong volume more or less resembles that in the harpsichord collections of Jacquet de la Guerre, Louis Marchand and their various lesser imitators. But even from the pen of a twenty-three-year-old composer from the provinces there are drops of pure gold. The Prélude, one of the last unmeasured examples of that genre, is of startling intensity. The tarantella-like gestures of its fast second section give way to the bittersweet first Allemande, which recalls the great art of the French lutenists. This in turn leads to a quicker type of the same dance; these movements attest to the danceability of this genre, which was later lost under so many layers of refinement. The gestures of the Courante and Gigue are completely steeped in tradition, and they both burst at the seams with potency and character. After a gentle pair of Sarabandes, the Vénitienne forms the emotional core of this suite. This gem is a fetching depiction, perhaps, of the gondoliers in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. With the vigorous Gavotte and wry Menuet Rameau takes us from the sublime to the pastoral and entertaining, much as Marin Marais would conclude a suite with, for example, a Feste champêtre or a similar peasant-like tune. The order of movements is presented here as it is in the original printing, with this dramatic narrative in mind.

Following the collection of 1706, Rameau did not publish any more solo harpsichord music until the Pièces de clavecin of 1724. Containing two groups (most likely intended as suites), each centred on a different tonality, this publication shows a more mature composer who has clearly found his own voice. The Suite in E minor opens with a lofty Allemande, a piece that at first seems indebted to the older style until Rameau introduces a second theme with widely spaced intervals. This musical non sequitur, following the stepwise motion of the opening bars, creates an effect of eccentric opulence as Rameau suddenly, mid-phrase, shifts the melodic activity to a higher register, infusing the piece with a splendid vocal quality. The following Courante takes a more humble tone, with occasional moments of wit. Dispensing with the usual sarabande, Rameau goes straight into a pair of Gigues. The first is in the minor mode with a plaintive quality, which contrasts with the triumphal mood of the major-key second Gigue. Both are in rondeau form, and the second one sees Rameau introducing a variety of contrasting characters in the alternating couplets. This is the kind of music that transforms the double-manual harpsichord into a wellspring of colour and timbre.

Rameau introduces an imitation of nature in Le rappel des oiseaux (roughly translated as ‘The conference of the birds’). This piece was most likely inspired by Rameau’s friendship with the Jesuit Père Castel, who discussed with the composer the phenomenon and study of birdsong. We would be misguided to regard this (or La poule, from the G minor Suite) as some sort of silly warbling. There is a clear narrative thread, particularly evident in the second half where we hear the wings slowly losing energy and folding inwards as the birds fall asleep. It is all so wonderfully fetching, and I cannot help but think of the great medieval Sufi text of the same title (which has no relation to Rameau): ‘… rise up and play / Those liquid notes that steal men’s hearts away’.

There follows a triptych of vigorous Rigaudons followed by the glowing calm of the Musette en rondeau. This serene dance suggests a trio of old peasant ladies acting out the half-forgotten dances of their youth to the distant tones of a bagpipe being played in the hills. Then comes the dance of the young peasants with a rousing Tambourin—not a modern tambourine, but a pipe and tabor. It was this short movement that apparently inspired a little girl named Wanda Landowska to take up the cause of Baroque music. The last piece of the set, La villageoise, is a rondeau followed by a variation in running semiquavers. I like to imagine that this vignette depicts Rameau visiting the surrounding countryside of his hometown of Dijon, spying on a young peasant girl walking in the meadows. She is graceful, innocent, and all the more alluring as she hasn’t the faintest notion of her own quiet power. In the semiquavers I hear Rameau’s love for this girl and for the old days as he rides back to Paris. As in Dvorák’s ‘Dumky’ Piano Trio, Op 90, the composer observes the simple beauty and youth of times past, and the music only hints at what must be a deeper longing.

With the close of the E minor Suite, we have reached the apotheosis of the pièces de caractère. The second group of pieces in the 1724 volume constitutes the Suite in D major, opening with an almost tongue-in-cheek exemplar of the character piece, with a title so hackneyed that Rameau was surely poking a bit of fun: Les tendres plaintes (‘The tender sighs’). Whatever his intentions it is a pearl of a piece, and Rameau clearly thought enough of it to rework it as a ballet movement in Zoroastre (1749). As with so many harpsichord pieces by Rameau and his contemporaries, the use of rondeau form proves effective as the repetition of the main theme after each couplet creates great intensity.

Les niais de Sologne represents a more obvious example of Rameau’s penchant for irony. Here, he creates a cultural hybrid in which the two variations make use of the sort of virtuosic instrumental techniques from Italy that had conquered Parisian musical society a few years before. Interestingly, a ‘niais de Sologne’ is defined in the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (1762) as being a clever and adept man feigning simple-mindedness but who ‘makes errors in his own favour’. This is a musical equivalent of Jaroslav Hašek’s unforgettable Soldier Švejk, who in his seeming innocence hampered the Austrian war effort. The playfully simple theme is transformed into rollicking triplets, and then in a second ‘double’ that same naive ditty persists in the right hand while the left hand is subjected to devilish passage-work. If handled deftly, the piece concludes on an ironic note.

After the cool, mysterious airs of Les soupirs (for me, the original ‘Autumn Leaves’), Rameau provides two rondeaux, the second of which, La follette, is so full of character as to suggest a complete miniature drama. As is indicated by the title, La follette depicts a well-intentioned but slightly batty young lady, and the mad quality of her thinking can be heard in the continuous trills and accented hiccups of the first couplet.

The three movements that follow are each masterpieces. The evocation of a fantastical conversation as portrayed in L’entretien des Muses elevates the entire suite to the realm of the otherworldly. Les tourbillons is Rameau’s portrayal of strong winds that require nimble navigation. And then comes the jewel in the crown, Les cyclopes, a musical depiction of the mythological smithies who forged Jupiter’s thunderbolts in the deep recesses of the Earth. Here Rameau uses his special technique of ‘batteries’ which he claimed to have invented. He writes in the preface to the 1724 collection: ‘In one of the batteries the hands make between them the consecutive movement of two drumsticks; and in the other, the left hand passes over the right to play alternately the bass and treble.’ Incidentally, Les cyclopes is believed to be one of the pieces played by the Jesuit Amiot before the Chinese Emperor; sadly, it seems to have not made much of an impression. Two miniatures round off the suite, Le lardon, which depicts the smacking of one’s lips in eating a tasty morsel of bacon, and La boiteuse, a good-natured characterization of limping. The Pièces de clavecin of 1724 show Rameau as a truly visual artist, a Claude Lorrain to Couperin’s Watteau—with slightly broader brushstrokes. The C major Menuet en rondeau stands apart from the two suites in the 1724 collection, illustrating technical points that Rameau makes in the preface to this volume.

Rameau’s third and final collection of harpsichord music—the Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin of c1729–30—in many ways represents the pinnacle of the ‘international style’ as applied to the art of the French clavecinistes. There is as much Handel and Scarlatti here as there is Couperin and Marchand. One almost gets the sense that Rameau has tired of claveciniste convention and is beginning to see the harpsichord as a substitute for the orchestra in a way that must have shocked his contemporaries.

Like the 1724 volume, this collection also contains two suites. The Suite in A minor opens with a stirring Allemande, a tribute to the good old style. But even here one can hear that special Ramellian wink in the chains of thirds and sixths in the accompanying voices. Once engaged in such flowery discourse Rameau cannot help himself, and he even adds codas with chains of triplets to the cadences in each half. The overall effect is one of noble vocality with a slight tinge of resignation. The quality of grandeur is further underlined in the Courante, in which the running quavers juxtaposed with the sharp rhythms and accents of the original dance surely mean to evoke a blend of French orchestral practice and the art of Italian violin-playing.

The graceful movements of the Sarabande show Rameau as the king of the dance, as he skilfully portrays the elaborate gestures of the dancer with specific indications for the arpeggiation and decoration of chords. It is as if the harpsichordist’s fingers themselves become dancers, maintaining the grand gestures of the feet in balance with the fanciful movements of the dancer’s hands, as was the practice in performing sarabandes. Les trois mains is a bit of a mystery. Is it simply a cheeky depiction of three greatly independent parts on the keyboard? Or can we detect the influence of Domenico Scarlatti, who had visited Paris in 1724? Then there is the term ‘three hands’ used in dancing, specifically in the Scottish strathspey ‘Nora’s Fandango’. I used to play this as a pièce croisée on two manuals, but I now believe that Rameau must have meant it for one keyboard—otherwise, how do we get the impression of three hands playing?

Fanfarinette and La triomphante illustrate Rameau’s mastery of the pièce de caractère. The first is a depiction of someone who feigns bravery (the term is derived from ‘fanfaron’—a braggart); perhaps we can hear this in the fanciful quality of the melody and the runs in the right hand. The second piece is a general evocation of triumph rather than a reference to a specific person; the last couplet has a hint of Rameau the curmudgeon. The A minor Suite closes with the justifiably famous Gavotte with six ‘doubles’, or variations, which has become a warhorse of many a recital programme. The solid, chorale-variation flavour to this piece makes sense when we hear it through the lens of Handel’s eight ‘great’ suites of 1720, a hugely popular collection that appears in bits and pieces in Continental sources and which was certainly known to Rameau. Rameau’s variations are directly based, in fact, on the air and variations from Handel’s D minor Suite. And Handel’s variations are, in turn, elaborations on models by Pachelbel and Zachow. Rameau seems to have been blissfully ignorant of the Germanic and ecclesiastical basis of such a variation style, and in the final three variations he takes a completely different and frankly virtuosic path.

The Suite in G minor is made up almost entirely of pièces de caractère. The set opens with Les tricotets, a capricious reference to the swift and nimble movement of hands engaged in knitting. The perfumed tones of L’indifferente give way to the theatrical steps of the two Menuets which Rameau later recycled in his Castor and Pollux (1737). Then comes La poule, yet another of Rameau’s pieces that survived into the Romantic period as a bon-bon for the piano; it seems to have been played with particular aplomb by Louis Diémer, the teacher of Alfred Cortot. La poule also enjoyed some renown in an orchestral transcription by Respighi in his Gli uccelli (later used as the title music of the BBC quiz show Going for a song). The pervading quality of tragedy is difficult to ignore here as the repeated quavers and fiendish semiquavers riddled with mordents and trills suggest a pursuit of some kind—perhaps our barnyard friend is being tracked by a hawk or some other kind of predator?

Les triolets takes its name from a genre of French poetry which by Rameau’s day had already become quite archaic. There is no discernible connection between this piece and the poetic form, but I have always imagined it to depict the discovery of old love letters in the attic of one’s grandparents, so sweet is the quality of nostalgia—and so fleeting, for in the closing bars of the petite reprise we hear the past crumbling like old paper in our hands. Les sauvages represents impressions of two Huron Indians sent from French Canada in the 1720s who performed at the Théâtre italien in Paris to a large crowd of curious observers. The unwieldy contour of the principal theme, based on bizarre leaps, transmits the quality of naïveté ascribed by eighteenth-century Europeans to anyone they considered to be ‘noble savages’. Rameau goes from the exotic to the esoteric in the following piece, L’enharmonique, which derives its name, as Rameau explains in the preface to the collection, from the enharmonic spelling of certain notes and chords which form the basis for striking chromatic modulations. Always certain to justify his musical decisions, Rameau argues that ‘the harmony which creates this effect has by no means been thrown in haphazardly; it is based on logic and has the sanction of nature herself’—a clear reference to the use of a circular temperament of some kind. The concluding L’egiptienne (not L’Égyptienne as it appears in some modern editions) portrays the wild mystery of a gypsy girl. Crossed-hand imitative gestures with descending arpeggios create a cascade of sound at once powerful and capricious. She is the darker, sultrier, and much more fun counterpart to Debussy’s Girl with the flaxen hair.

This recording concludes with two pieces that survive only in manuscripts. La Dauphine comes from an autograph in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris and is thought to be the notated version of an improvisation performed at the wedding of the Dauphin Louis Ferdinand in 1747. According to the Rameau scholar Cuthbert Girdlestone, the ‘true Rameau’ of this piece makes his appearance in the interrupted cadence five bars from the end. It is rather puzzling that Rameau provides diacritical markings to indicate ornaments, in the style associated with French violin music (using a ‘+’ sign, which can mean a variety of things depending on the context). I have made my own decisions, having referred to two other manuscript copies of the piece in the same library.

Les petits marteaux comes from a manuscript in the hand of the celebrated harpsichordist and organist Claude-Bénigne Balbastre. While there is some question as to whether the piece is by Rameau (a dispute based entirely on the presence of a full point between ‘marteaux’ and ‘de M. Rameau’ on the manuscript—yes, this is how musicology can be), the American scholar David Fuller has argued that this work can probably be counted as a minor addition to the canon of Rameau’s works. It may be a little tribute to the composer’s friend, a certain Madame du Hallay, herself a figure of some renown in eighteenth-century Parisian literary circles. According to Friedrich Marpurg, Rameau used to call her fingers ‘ses petits marteaux’ (his little hammers). This piece was probably dashed off in a few moments in the way a famous artist might draw a bird or a face in an autograph book.

Mahan Esfahani © 2014

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