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Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
A Basket of Wild Strawberries - A Selection of Keyboard Jewels

From Premier Livre (1706)
Prélude [4:15]
Allemande [4:33]
Sarabandes I and II [5:14]
Gavotte [2:12]
From Pièces de clavecin (1724), Suite in E
Gigue en rondeau I [2:28]
Gigue en rondeau II [1:54]
Le Rappel des Oiseaux [1:23]
Rigadouns I and II and Double du II [1:15]
Musette en rondeau [3:21]
Tambourin [1:30]
La Villageoise [3:29]
From Pièces de clavecin (1724), Suite in D
Les Tendres Plaintes [4:07]
Les Nais de Sologne and Deux Doubles [4:48]
Les Soupirs [7:15]
La Joyeuse [0:59]
From Nouvelles Suites (1728), Suite in A
Allemande [8:13]
Les Trois Mains [2:57]
Sarabande [2:48]
Fanfarinette [2:57]
La Triomphante [1:36]
Gavotte and Six Doubles [8:29]
Tzimon Barto (piano)
rec. Järvenpää Hall, Finland, February 2005
ONDINE ODE 1067-2 [75:57]


Rameau fans who have picked this CD up in a hurry to catch their plane at the airport without looking properly at the label or having had a chance to read the booklet notes are in for a surprise. Piano versions of harpsichord classics are of course not unheard of, but with one’s Rameau ears accustomed to the likes of Sophie Yates and Christophe Rousset, it is something of a shock to hear something that sometimes makes you wonder if you’ve wandered into a Keith Jarrett concert.
 
The great Wanda Landowska told us that we’d be very naughty boys if we compared the piano with the harpsichord on equal terms, and Tzimon Barto’s attitude is also grounded in such sound common-sense. The booklet notes contain little information about Rameau – neatly sidestepping our lack of knowledge about this particular composer. We can of course get what biographical information there is and a blow-by-blow account of each movement elsewhere. The notes take the form of an interview with Barto, in which he refers to the differences between harpsichord performing and the piano. All his teachers said ‘never try to play the piano as if it where a harpsichord’, and Barto approaches the music ‘from the standpoint of a singer, who seeks a variety of colours and phrasing,’ and priding himself on having ’36 dynamic colours between ppp and fff!’ He does respect the performing standards of early music specialists however, and with William Christie being mentioned more than once I felt it would be churlish not to reach my copy of his Harmonia Mundi recordings down from the ‘awkward-to-get-to cupboard behind the sofa’, where I was delighted to find them sounding much richer and more fun than I’d remembered.
 
The opening Prélude is so sustained and improvisational sounding that the Keith Jarrett reference will, I hope, be understood by many. His occasional grunts later in the disc will complete the effect, but here the music is transformed into something rich and strange. Unadorned with excessive ornamentation, the piano’s sostenuto qualities are allowed free rein in the introduction, and the dancing second section comes almost as an afterthought, adding only about a minute to the total timing. I like the bounce and rhythmic pulse of Barto’s playing in the dance numbers, although he has an inclination to push the dynamic extremes on occasion, with clunky accents sometimes poking through the generally elegant textures like a spoke through your inner tube.
 
With the piano’s supposed superior ability to sustain and stretch you might expect timings to be generally far beyond those of a harpsichord version, but not so. Comparing Barto’s gentle opening to the Allemande of the ‘Nouvelles Suites’ we find William Christie coming in a few seconds over Barto’s timing, but as predicted, filling the essence of the music with elaborate ornamentation. I like both versions. Christie is authentically authoritative, but Barto has a way of luring the listener into accepting his take on these pieces as natural and self-explanatory. Comparing American pianists, Barto’s is a journey into a musical narrative whose carrot is invariably juicier than, for instance, the almost puritanical Glenn Gould. His performances are quite often filled with a kind of joyous abandon which is quite infectious. His version of Les Trois Mains is a good deal shorter than Christie’s, taking off in a flight of lines chasing each other like a Paul Klee drawing. His ornamentation is light and subtle, allowing the principal notes of each piece to speak in an uninterrupted directness which I find wholly refreshing. The great Sarabande has all of the majesty implied by Rameau’s score, and Barto chases the spread chords as if they are mice on the keyboard, all the while keeping a check on too lugubrious a dynamic – his lightness of touch rarely going beyond mf.
 
Tzimon Barto correctly links Rameau’s music to the entire culture of the time in which these pieces where written, relating paintings by Watteau and Fragonard to certain pieces. Those wondering where the title for the CD comes from need look no further than the cover painting by Jean Siméon Chardin, with whose work Barto compares the Prélude and the Musette.
 
This recording has been compiled in much the same way that Barto would programme a recital, and as such it works superbly, contrasting character pieces with dance-like movements, the impossibly restrained and slow with the infectiously rhythmic and Joyeuse. His approach is very much related to the character of the piano, and this instrument’s ability to extend the range of expressive possibilities in Rameau’s work. Early music buffs will probably run miles to avoid such a disc, but as a fan of quality music in all its wondrous variety I must say that such Calvinists will be missing a treat. We can look at ancient music and attempt to re-create how the ‘last musician standing’ might have played it before the revolution put paid to such fripperies, or we can drag the notes into the light of the 21st century and see what they have to offer our over-privileged ears. While a part of me will always be curled up on the back seat of the car listening nocturnally and nostalgically to harpsichord recitals through a crystal earpiece while the 1970s orange streetlamps whiz by, an even greater part is picking his way through the incredibly mountainous debris of fatherhood, delighted to find genuine renewal and escape in an area of music once thought to have become terminally fossilised.
 
Dominy Clements
 

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