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Rebel Boismortier CVS021
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Les caractères d'Ulysse
Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747)
Suite from Ulysse (1703)
Les Caractères de la Danse (1715)
Les Élémens (extr) (1737)
Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689-1755)
Premier Ballet de Village (1734)
Suite from Daphnis et Chloé (1747)
Jean-Féry Rebel
Les Plaisirs Champêtres (1734)
Loris Barrucand, Clément Geoffroy (harpsichord)
rec. 2019, Château Royal, Versailles, France

Music for two harpsichords seems to be quite popular these days. In recent years several discs with such repertoire have been released. However, they almost exclusively include arrangements of some sort. During the 17th and 18th centuries very few original pieces for two keyboards were written. One may wonder why that is the case. One reason certainly is that keyboard music - and especially that part which was published - was intended for amateurs, and as the harpsichord was a rather expensive instrument, not many people could afford two such instruments. It seems plausible that teachers played duets with their students, but that is hardly a reason to write music for two keyboards, let alone to publish it. The best-known compositions for this scoring are the suites by the French composer Gaspard Le Roux - who offered two-keyboard versions as alternatives to the conventional versions for one harpsichord - and the concertos for two keyboards by the Spanish composer Antonio Soler.

Some years ago Jochewed Schwarz and Emer Buckley recorded music by François Couperin (review). Most of that was written for either one harpsichord or for an ensemble of various instruments. In their performances of these pieces on two harpsichords, they were inspired by Couperin himself, who - in the preface of his Apothéose de Lully - stated that he often played his instrumental works on two harpsichords with students or with members of his family. "This trio, as well as the Apothéose de Corelli, and the complete book of trios which I hope to publish next July, may be played on two harpsichords, as well as on all other instruments. I play them this way with my family and with my students, and it works very well, by playing the premier dessus and the bass on one harpsichord and the second dessus with the same bass in unison on the other one."

This bears witness to the pragmatism of composers at the time. The early 18th century saw an increase of domestic music making, and as not always every instrument for which music was written, was available, the adaptation of sonatas or suites for different scorings was very common. Composers knew very well that offering different options with regard to scoring could only increase the commercial success of their printed editions. Today, performers are aware of that, which explains why sonatas for violin are often played on instruments such as the recorder or the transverse flute. In comparison, the option of playing instrumental music, such as solo sonatas or trio sonatas, at the keyboard is still the exception.

The present disc comprises music by two composers who have left nothing (Rebel) or very little (Boismortier) for the harpsichord. There are no indications that the music performed by Loris Barrucand and Clément Geoffroy can be played on two harpsichords. And here we have not to do with instrumental pieces in three parts, as the trios by Couperin, but with orchestral music, which was intended for performance in the theatre. Therefore, in this case we have to consider the performances on two harpsichords as full-blooded arrangements. This recording is the result of a commission by Hervé Niquet to produce an original show for six dancers and two harpsichords, mixing Baroque dance, pantomime, rustic theatre and opera parodies, as part of the commemoration of the birth of Jean-Féry Rebel in 2016. "To create the musical section, we extracted the pieces from the vast opus of Rebel that we considered the most attractive and most suitable for transcription for two harpsichords", the two performers state in the booklet.

Jean-Féry Rebel was the son of Jean Rebel (c1636-1692), a singer who entered the royal chapel in 1661. Five of his children became musicians, among them Anne-Renée, also a singer, and Jean-Féry. The latter was educated as a violinist and harpsichordist; from the age of eight he received lessons from Lully. In 1705 he was one of the violinists in the 24 Violons du Roi and became batteur de mesure in that ensemble as well as in the orchestra of the Opéra. Three of the compositions, which have been adapted here for two keyboards, are so-called symphonies de danse. They were intended for choreographic performances in the theatre. In addition, we get extracts from his only opera, Ulysse, a tragédie-lyrique premiered in 1703 at the Académie Royale.

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, one of the few independent composers of his time, was always keen to meet the demands of the music lovers of his days. There can be little doubt that the success of Rebel's dance symphonies inspired him to compose something similar: four Ballets de Village. The first of these is included here. He also composed three works for the theatre: a ballet, a ballet-comique and Daphnis et Chloé, a pastorale, first performed at the Opéra in 1747. A suite from this work rounds off the programme.

Transcribing orchestral music is different from that of chamber music. In the latter case, the subtlety of some movements or passages is not easy to realise, whereas the noise of two harpsichords is not that different from that of an orchestra. From that angle it is not that surprising that Le Cahos, the opening movement of Les Élemens, comes off pretty well. On the other hand, it is probably impossible to include all the elements of an orchestral score. Overall, the two harpsichordists offer a well-crafted programme of music, which is attractive in itself, and doesn't lose any of its power in these transcriptions.

That is also due to the lively and engaging playing of the two artists, with the substantial assistance of two historical harpsichords preserved in the museum of the Palace of Versailles, dating from 1628 (Ruckers) and 1706 (Blanchet) respectively. This is a most enjoyable production.

Johan van Veen

Published: November 24, 2022

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