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Hyperion Records

SACDA67597 - Rameau: Keyboard Suites
The Music Lesson by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806)
Louvre, Paris / Giraudon / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: June 2006
Das Kulturzentrum Grand Hotel, Dobbiaco, Italy
Produced by Ludger Böckenhoff
Engineered by Ludger Böckenhoff
Release date: January 2007
Total duration: 77 minutes 59 seconds



Keyboard Suites
Angela Hewitt (piano) Super-Audio CD — Deleted  
Hyperion’s Record of the Month for January takes multi-award-winning Baroque legend Angela Hewitt to the elegantly refined French court of the early eighteenth century. Jean-Philippe Rameau topped the summit of the Musical Establishment—named Compositeur du Cabinet du Roi in 1745—yet his pedigree was hardly auspicious. For a time a travelling violinist, he held numerous undistinguished posts as provincial organist (rarely serving out his contract and on one occasion deliberately playing sufficiently badly to ensure his dismissal) before finally settling in Paris at the age of forty. Something of a theorist—his treatise On the Technique of the Fingers on the Harpsichord makes for essential reading—Rameau’s intellectualism combines in his music to produce passion and tenderness, in his own words ‘true music … the language of the heart’. Some sixty keyboard works are known, gathered by key into five suites; Hewitt here performs three of them. Courtly dances (including the famous Tambourin) sit alongside more programmatic movements (such as Les sauvages—Rameau had just seen two Louisiana Indians performing at the theatre) in these engaging and deceptively catchy miniatures. Admirers of Angela Hewitt’s acclaimed Bach and Couperin recordings will need no encouragement to sample these new delights. Angela Hewitt was named Artist of the Year at the Gramophone Awards 2006, capping a year of unparalleled success and recognition.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Jean-Philippe Rameau was born in Dijon in 1683, the son of a local organist and a notary’s daughter. He was the seventh of eleven children of whom only four survived infancy. Unlike Johann Sebastian Bach, born two years later, and François Couperin (born in 1668), he didn’t come from a long line of musicians, his father being the first in his family to follow that profession. Rameau père taught his children music before they could read or write, which was perhaps why the young Jean-Philippe was always singing and writing music rather than pursuing his other subjects at the Jesuit college where he studied. He left there without completing the course, and never having learned to speak or write in an elegant manner. Only when a young lady with whom he had fallen in love at the age of seventeen reproached him for his clumsy speech did he decide to brush up on his French grammar. Later in life Rameau said his love for opera began when he was twelve, no doubt initiated by school productions in which he had taken part.

When he was eighteen he went off to Italy but only stayed a short time and never got further than Milan. Michel-Paul-Guy de Chabanon (1729/30–1792), who published some memories of meetings with the composer, tells us that later in life Rameau regretted not having stayed longer as it would have ‘refined his taste’. When he returned to France, it is thought he spent some time as a violinist touring with a theatrical troupe in Provence and Languedoc. Documentation of the first half of Rameau’s life is very sketchy and has not made it easy for biographers.

For the next twenty years he went from one provincial church in France to another (Avignon, Clermont, Dijon, Lyons), never holding posts for very long, and usually leaving before his contract expired. While at Clermont for the second time in 1715 he signed a contract to stay for twenty-nine years, but managed only eight. The story goes that the authorities would not let him go, so during the octave of Corpus Christi he purposely played nothing but discords and chose the worst combinations of stops, so that they were finally happy to get rid of him.

At the age of forty Rameau went to Paris, where he stayed for the rest of his life (he had worked there briefly during his itinerant years). Two years later he married nineteen-year-old Marie-Louise Mangot, a singer and harpsichordist who later sang in some court performances of his operas. They had four children. Secretive by nature, it seems he disclosed very little of his previous life even to her.

Rameau’s compositions until then had included mostly cantatas and motets, as well as a first book of harpsichord pieces (1706). In 1722 he wrote his 450-page Traité de l’harmonie reduite à ses principes naturels which brought him immediate recognition when it was published the following year. It is strange that he left no compositions for organ, as that instrument earned him a living for thirty-five years (he was organist in Paris at Sainte-Croix de la Bretonnerie in the Marais from 1732 until 1738). His fame, of course, came later as an operatic composer, although it was to be another ten years before he wrote his first theatrical masterpiece (Hippolyte et Aricie). Named Compositeur du Cabinet du Roi in 1745 he composed some twenty operas and ballets between the ages of fifty and seventy, and went on until his death just before his eighty-first birthday. His theoretical and critical writings were prolific. Rameau may have been a late-starter, but he made up for it sumptuously.

His physique was striking: very tall, and incredibly thin, ‘resembling more a ghost than a man’ (Chabanon). The playwright Piron described him as ‘a long organ pipe with the blower away’. His large and sharp features combined with fiery eyes that reflected his personality, already remarked upon by Père Gauthier at the Jesuit college, who described him as a child of uncommon liveliness. He was accused of avarice, and at his death had a sack full of louis d’or yet only one pair of shoes, but in fact he was very generous to members of his family and helped many young musicians. In Rameau intellectualism combined with passion and tenderness to produce what he himself called ‘true music … the language of the heart’.

This liveliness of spirit manifests itself in great abundance in his Pièces de clavecin. In total he left some sixty-odd pieces: after the first collection of 1706, came a second book published in 1724 (revised 1731), and a third circa 1729–30. In addition there are six separate pieces, five of which are solo keyboard arrangements of works from his Pièces de clavecin en concerts. For this recording, I have chosen three of the five suites included in those collections. Rameau himself didn’t give them the title ‘Suite’; he simply grouped together pieces in the same key (major and minor) as was the custom.

The first modern edition of Rameau’s keyboard works was published in France in 1895, edited by Camille Saint-Saëns. This edition is now available re-printed by Dover. One must be aware, however, that at this time the harpsichord was hardly if at all in use as a solo instrument, and most of the ornaments were thought impossible and inappropriate on the modern piano. So they were simply left out. The Bärenreiter edition fortunately restores the original text. It also includes the introductions that Rameau wrote to his second and third collections which are invaluable. His essay On the Technique of the Fingers on the Harpsichord should be read by everyone attempting to play a keyboard instrument (no unnecessary movements please!). The table of ornaments is also fundamental to the proper execution of these pieces.

The Suite in E minor (1724, revised 1731) is a wonderful piece from beginning to end, and it is surprising that it is not heard more often in its entirety. It includes the well-known Tambourin which is probably Rameau’s most famous tune. It opens with an Allemande that has a lovely swing without losing the nobility of the dance. This nobility is carried over into the Courante, a true example of the French type combining a stately elegance with rhythmic sophistication and precision. Then we have a series of movements that are among Rameau’s most immediately attractive, beginning with two Gigues en rondeau. The original dance came from Scotland or Ireland where it could have originated with sailors (a trace of this can be heard in the second one), but Rameau’s are a mixture of both the Italian type (equal notes, slurred) and the French (the rondeau form and the profusion of ornaments).

The next piece, the stunning Le rappel des oiseaux, is the first of the ‘genre’ pieces in his suites. Its war-like calls rouse the birds to action, becoming more insistent as the piece progresses. Then we return to the dance with two Rigaudons, the second in the major (with a double, or variation) especially emphasizing its lively and springy character. It was a dance, done in a circle, which was often included in his operas. The Musette en rondeau is a tender, pastoral scene which Rameau recycled in his opera-ballet Les fêtes d’Hébé (1739). The insistent drone of a bagpipe and the trilling of birds accompany the feeling of contentment during the grape harvest. In the orchestral version, the ‘inégalité’ (unevenness) of the quavers (eighth notes) is written out, attesting to the practise of jeu inégal, without which French Baroque music simply sounds wrong. As in Les fêtes d’Hébé, the Musette is followed by a Tambourin—a theatrical dance which became one of the most popular of the reign of Louis XV, and in which the dancer would have had a tambourine in hand. Rather curiously, but very effectively, Rameau decides not to end the suite there, but adds La villageoise, a poignant, innocent rondeau whose theme he ends up embellishing as an extension of the second couplet.

The remaining two suites on this disc make up the entirety of Rameau’s Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin which appeared sometime around 1729–30. In them we find an increasing richness, passion and sense of drama, as well as some new technical effects on the keyboard. It is interesting to note that at the time of their appearance, Couperin had written three of his four books of harpsichord pieces, Bach was in the midst of publishing his six partitas (one a year beginning in 1726), Handel had written his first set of keyboard suites, but Scarlatti had not yet begun writing his sonatas.

The first few pieces in the Suite in G minor are innocent enough. Les tricotets was a popular dance in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and a favourite of Henri IV. Presumably the quick movements of the feet, involving both heels and toes, were meant to resemble the nimbleness of knitters (‘tricoter’ means ‘to knit’). The alternation of two and three beats to the bar immediately reminds us of the minuet in Bach’s Fifth Partita—also in G major. L’indifferente (‘The casual lover’) is a minuet, and was a popular title for a character piece (as well as the title of a painting by Watteau, painted some eleven years before this piece was composed). Of the two graceful Menuets that follow, one in the major, one in the minor, the first reappears nine years later in his lyric tragedy Castor et Pollux.

Then comes one of Rameau’s masterpieces, La poule, with the obsessive clucking of the hen (Rameau writes ‘co co co co co coco dai’ under the opening notes). It is pure drama, and, as Cuthbert Girdlestone wrote in his 1957 biography of the composer, ‘has the intensity and singlemindedness of a Racine tragedy, with alternations of hope and despair’. Rameau marks these contrasts with the words fort et doux. It is possible that the first sketches for this piece go back to his early days in Paris when the Jesuit Père Castel discussed with him the bird songs noted in the writings of Athanasius Kircher (1650) and aroused his feelings for depicting nature. The five repeated notes of the theme become hammered-out chords in the right hand towards the end, with the arpeggios transferred to the bass. Observing all of Rameau’s ornamentation requires some quick fingerwork.

The next movement of the suite, Les triolets, calms us down with its poetic melancholy and tenderness. Rameau states in his preface to this collection that it should not be taken fast. It ends with a ‘petite reprise’—a written-out echo of the last few bars. A triolet was a medieval verse form that became popular again in the seventeenth century.

On 10 September 1725 Rameau attended a performance by two Louisiana Indians at one of the theatres of the Fair. Their dancing must have made an impression on him, because he characterized them in the next piece, Les sauvages. As a Canadian I can’t help imagining the colourful displays of our Canadian native people, especially when playing the descending repeated notes of the theme. It became one of Rameau’s most popular works, and he later included it in his opera-ballet Les Indes galantes.

The last two pieces of the suite are also gems. Rameau talks at great length of L’enharmonique in the preface to this collection. An enharmonic change is when, for example, a C sharp becomes a D flat (on the keyboard the same note), which indeed happens in the twelfth bar of the second section. An expressive pause marks the point which, to listeners of Rameau’s day, would have been something quite extraordinary. Rameau states:

The effect experienced in the twelfth bar of the Reprise of the Enharmonique may not perhaps be to everyone’s taste right away; one can nonetheless grow accustomed to it after a little application, and even grow to awareness of all its beauty once the initial aversion, which in this case might result from lack of familiarity, has been overcome. 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 …

The mood is one of a lament, with poignant chromaticisms and a few contrasting bars where, to alternate with gracieusement (‘gracefully’) Rameau writes hardiment, sans altérer la mesure (‘boldly, without altering the tempo’).

The final movement, L’egiptienne, is inspired by the dance of a gypsy girl, and brings the suite to a brilliant conclusion. In his preface Rameau sensibly warns us not to take the fast pieces too fast, but rather to be more intent upon capturing their correct character. That seems especially apt in the case of this piece.

For the Suite in A minor, Rameau uses the traditional opening dances of Allemande, Courante and Sarabande, but there is nothing standard about his treatment of them. Right from the start, he sets a tone of noble grandeur, only briefly relieved at the end of each section of the Allemande where a toccata-like figure is introduced for a few bars. The writing is much more contrapuntal than in the earlier E minor Suite, the interpretation far more challenging. I think Girdlestone is right to devote so much attention to the Courante, which he calls ‘one of the summits of Rameau’s art’. It is one of his most difficult pieces to comprehend and to play, not just because of its rich counterpoint and rhythmic complexities (the jeu inégal must be used judiciously and with freedom but within a strict frame), but because the execution of the ornaments also requires tremendous skill. Even after you have figured all that out, you still have to make music. As Girdlestone says: ‘The door has to be knocked on more than once before it will open, but of the riches within there is no doubt and the effort is worthwhile.’ The solemn Sarabande is also richly ornamented, with swirling, written-out arpeggios that heighten the tension. It was reused more than twenty years later in his lyric tragedy Zoroastre.

In the next piece, Les trois mains, Rameau gives the illusion of there being three hands by having the left one constantly cross over the right, providing at the beginning a criss-cross accompaniment to the tender melody; the music becomes more sprightly later on, foreshadowing Scarlatti. Next come two contrasting character pieces: the first, Fanfarinette (a female nickname), must depict someone of great charm—carefree and flirtatious. The second, La triomphante, is exactly that.

The final Gavotte with its six variations closes this suite in a magnificent fashion. The theme, contrary to expectation, is not fast (Rameau tells us so in his preface), but the variations build in momentum to a virtuoso conclusion. Running scales in both hands are then taken up by the middle voice in more complicated figurations. The fourth double reminds me of Variation 23 in Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ which weren’t written for another fourteen years. The hands stab at each other, at first in single notes, but then in thirds and chords, often in the same register on the keyboard (made more difficult on the piano where there is only one, not two). The last two variations show off each hand in turn and demand great stamina and brilliance. While the left hand leaps with joy, the right displays the theme in all its glory.

Angela Hewitt © 2007

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