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Jean-Phillippe RAMEAU (1683 - 1764)
Keyboard Works Volume 2.

Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin (1728)
Suite in A [29.30]
Suite in G [28.42]
Cinq pièces pour clavecin seul, extraites de ‘Pièces de clavecin en concert’ (1741)
La Livri [2.40]
L’Agaçante [2.48]
La timide 1ere rondeau [2.31]
La timide 2me rondeau [2.10]
L’Indiscrète rondeau [1.27]
La Dauphine (1747) [3.01]
Sophie Yates, harpsichord by A. Garlick after Goujon 1747, tuned A=415Hz. in Valotti [unequal] temperament by A. G.
Recorded at 96/24 Forde Abbey, Somerset, UK, 18 June 2003.
Notes in English, Deutsch, Français. Picture of composer and photo of artist.

Comparison recordings

Robert Veyron-Lacroix (complete) Westminster LP
Fernando Valenti (Suites in G and A) Allegro LP
Christoph Rousset (complete) L’Oiseau-Lyre 425 886-2
Wanda Landowska (La Dauphine) RCA LP

Looking at the list above makes a startling point. Since Landowska it is men who have played Rameau. I didn’t even mention the Anton Heiller recordings which were well thought of. Against this background Sophie Yates’ recording is of interest and not just for her superb musicianship. I must confess, on no more than 30 seconds acquaintance, Sophie Yates became my favourite harpsichordist and remains so with each new release. After the wonderful early years with Wanda Landowska, Sylvia Marlowe and Fernando Valenti, harpsichord music went through a chilly period where the music wasn’t performed so much as tinkled to death; I’ll be nice and won’t mention names. Many timid recordings were made on museum instruments by people who hadn’t played them enough to become familiar with them. The mere mention of a 16’ stop could get you thrown off the campus at most universities. Rhythm and tempo were expunged and all we heard were endless fussy stops and starts, all of it over-ornamented. Fortunately things are now relaxing significantly. Bounce, swing, even lyricism, on the harpsichord are valued once more. Even Ruckers harpsichord copies now have two ranks and couplers for the most part and I’ve actually heard one with a 16’ stop! The sun shines once more.

Sophie Yates who does so well with English and German harpsichord music here acquires the perfect fluttery breathiness and fluidity of phrasing. She plays on an appropriately twangy — but not too twangy — French instrument with very clear and firm lower range. And when some backbone is called for, which does happen in Rameau a lot more often than in Couperin, there she is, firm and forthright. Rameau wrote upon a broader canvas than other French composers of the period and his music embraces a greater range of emotions and styles, as befits his deeper theoretical understanding of music. Hence his music has greater lasting power. Every keyboard collection should have a complete Rameau — it’s only two CDs — and, based on my hearing just volume 2, this one is as good as the very best in terms of both sound and performance. You will enjoy listening to it over and over again.

Yates’ "Trois mains" is the best I’ve ever heard, more drama and more rhythmic integrity than Veyron-Lacroix. Her "Triomphante" is delightfully clear and eruptive. Her "Gavotte Variée" does not bring tears as Landowska’s does, nor does it achieve the nobility of Veyron-Lacroix, but has the edge in verve and dramatic logic. Her "Poule" is the best I’ve heard with just the right descriptive humour. "Les Sauvages" has well judged swing and fluidity. "L’Enharmonique" achieves an almost Scarlattian pathos and tenderness and is one of Rameau’s — and Yates’ — finest achievements. It shows off the slightly unequal temperament to good advantage with its adventuresome modulations. Her "Dauphine" is graced by huge dramatic flourishes and is almost flamboyant.

The now widely used Valotti temperament here employed is very similar to those developed by Thomas Young, and also to the Werckmeister and Kirnberger temperaments used by J. S. Bach. It has recently found favour by way of being a desirable compromise between the banality of equal temperament and the seeming excessive exoticism of mean-tone temperament. There are some who would argue that Rameau should be played in equal temperament. After making my own investigations I am of firmly of the opinion that unequal temperaments are preferable not only for Bach and Rameau, but for all Eighteenth Century music and even Nineteenth Century music up through Schubert and perhaps even some Chopin.

Compared to Yates, Christoph Rousset is more scholarly, less dramatic or flamboyant, slightly closer recorded, and utilises a slightly more aggressively unequal temperament for a little more sweetness on the nearer keys and a little more acid in the remoter notes. His instrument is brighter with less presence from the bass strings. His version is equally worthy and some may prefer it.

With the new high resolution recordings available, our standards have gone up. What we once might have accepted as a nearly perfect harpsichord recording doesn’t sound so good now. This recording, originally made in high resolution is among the clearest and most realistic harpsichord recordings I’ve ever heard; but I would buy the SACD version when it comes out. My only complaint is that I haven’t heard Volume 1 yet.

Paul Shoemaker

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