Though created relatively early in life, Rameau’s harpsichord music spans around a 25 year period. His first Suite in A Minor is conventional when compared to what was to follow, almost like a man confined to a single-room house as opposed to someone raised in the brightest lights of the theater. Indeed, Rameau was to become the theater man extraordinaire, and one can only hazard a guess that this is why his later activity essentially ignored the instrument he initially concentrated on, to our detriment. For Rameau’s keyboard music is, quite simply, some of the most engrossing and phenomenally colorful and cleverly-wrought music ever written for the instrument. But alas, aside from some orchestral transcriptions that he made later, the music on these two discs is all to be had.
Yet it is the type of music that one can listen to over and over again without tiring, the tried and true determination of any great work of art. And when we leave the early music and approach the astonishing “character pieces”—which have never been equaled by any composer—we sit back and let the music wash over us in a state of delirious euphoria. By the time we reach the last Suites in A and G Minor, his third and final “book”, little remains to be said—this is a theater man who was reinventing the form of the harpsichord suite of his time.
This is an interesting recording, though not, I think, the last word. Mahan Esfahani has been lauded as of late for his recording of the Wurttemberg Sonatas by CPE Bach, and rightly so. Rameau, according to his own detailed and erudite notes, has gained quiet affection from him, but Rameau is quite different from CPE Bach. I applaud the idea of restraint in the ornamentation, something that mars but doesn’t destroy the classic set by Christophe Rousset on L’Oiseau-Lyre, and Hyperion has really given this restored single-manual Ruckers harpsichord (1636) some superb and well integrated sound. Rousset’s sounds like it was recorded in an airplane hangar by comparison, and is much more metallic in its aural components. But Esfahani is not off the hook—there are some instances of what sounds like arbitrary and rather willful pauses and odd phrasings in several of these pieces, certainly not out of place by any means, but not exactly convincing to my ears. For that, I will still be returning to the two-disc issue on Chandos by Sophie Yates, not the most adventurous performer in the world, but one who rarely lets me down, and has as firm a grasp on the Rameau idiom as anyone.
But it is refreshing to hear a new take on this music, proving beyond a doubt that the genius of Rameau still inspires and challenges us today. He is certainly lucky that performers like Esfahani have engaged his spirit in well-thought and ultimately, highly communicative readings like this one.