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Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
The Complete Keyboard Music, Volume 1

Suite No. 1 in A minor (1706) [19:13]
Suite No. 2 in E minor and major (1724) [18:43]
Pièces de clavecin en concerts (1741) Concert No. 1 in C minor* [9:19]
Pièces de clavecin en concerts: Concert No. 2 in G major* [17:32]
Pièces de clavecin en concerts: Concert No. 3 in A major* [12:24]
Les Paladins: Air des paladins (1760)** [2:01]
* transcribed by Stephen Gutman
** transcribed by Claude-Bénigne BALBASTRE (1727-99)
Stephen Gutman (piano)
rec. Hurstwood Farm Studios, Kent, England, 5th.-6th. June and 22nd. September, 2006. DDD.
Booklet with notes in English, French and German.

This is the first of three volumes presenting the whole of Rameau’s keyboard works on the piano for the first time: in particular, the recordings of the three Concerts from Pièces de clavecin are claimed as the first on the piano.

Regular readers will know that I am generally averse to piano renditions of music written for the harpsichord or clavichord, with slightly grudging exceptions for the likes of Glenn Gould’s and Angela Hewitt’s Bach. I had not realised when I placed my bid for this recording that it was a piano version; when realisation dawned, on opening the parcel, I thought that I might regret the oversight. I am delighted to report that I was wrong: I now add Stephen Gutman’s Rameau to my list of exceptions and I shall bid for the next volume when it appears.

From the very opening of the first Suite it is apparent that Gutman shares one quality with Hewitt, a harpsichord-like lightness of touch that effectively makes one forget that he is playing the piano. Of course, the argument which I employ in the case of Angela Hewitt still applies: if he/she can play with such lightness of touch, why not play the harpsichord or clavichord?

I have not heard Angela Hewitt’s recordings of three Rameau Suites (Hyperion SACDA/CDA 67597) but cannot imagine that they can be much better than Gutman’s versions. (In fact, my colleague Patrick C Waller was less than bowled over in his review, though other reviewers reacted much more positively.) Whereas I understand that the Hyperion recording was made in a somewhat opulent acoustic, with the piano very forward, that on the present Toccata release is neutral, neither too dry nor too reverberant and with the piano ideally placed. The recording was made at Hurstwood Farm – a real farm, which grows walnuts as well as housing beautiful pianos, as the notes remind us. More to the point, both the instrument and the location seem very well chosen.

The major problem in performing Rameau on the piano is what to do with the ornamentation which, on the modern instrument, can easily sound fussy, louder than the melodic line and thus in the way. This is never, to my ears, a problem in this Gutman recording: the overall line predominates over the ornamentation at all times.

The first two Suites consist of dance music: allemandes, courantes, gigues, etc., and Gutman allows these simply to be as they are described. Tracks 6, Vénitienne, 14, Le rappel des oiseaux and 17, La villageoise, are what PCW describes as genre pieces, which he finds more interesting. Vénitienne may not particularly evoke a picture of a Venetian lady or girl in our minds, but this is a rather early example of the type, still more a minuet than a piece of programme music. Gutman simply plays it like the other dances in the Suite, which is surely right, albeit with perhaps an extra touch of lightness.

By the date of the Second Suite (1624) Rameau had become more adept at such programme music: Le rappel des oiseaux really does attempt to evoke birdsong, though less effectively than the better-known la poule, for which we must await one of the later Gutman volumes. (In a sense Messiaen’s piano and orchestral works based on birdsong were the logical development of such music as Rameau’s Le rappel and La poule.)

Matters are more complicated in the case of the three Concerts from the later Pièces de clavecin en concerts. As the overall title makes clear, these works were intended for keyboard with string accompaniment and, as PCW points out, are best heard in that original format on a bargain-price Harmonia Mundi CD, HMA195 1418, with Christophe Rousset et al. Gutman himself has transcribed them for solo piano for this recording. Do they work in this format? Heard on their own, without comparing the Rousset recording, they do, provided that one feigns amnesia, as it were, of the originals. In any case, as Professor Graham Sadler points out in the excellent notes, Rameau conceived of these works as for accompanied harpsichord – they are emphatically not what we would consider violin sonatas – and gave detailed guidance on how players could adapt the pieces for solo keyboard. Eighteenth-century composers were much more flexible than we sometimes think about how they intended their music to be performed, as witness Corelli’s Op.5 Sonatas.

There are far more genre pieces in these later works: in fact, only the concluding sections of Concert No.2 (Menuets I & II) and Concert No.3 (Tambourin I & II) are dance movements. Nevertheless, as the notes admit, the link between title and piece is not always strong. Some of them refer to colleagues and pupils, others to fictitious characters such as Coulicam or Kouli Khan (track 19) or to places such as le Vézinet (track 21). As I have never been to Vézinet, now a suburb of Paris, the appropriateness of the appellation is hard to determine. Best just to enjoy the music as music, which is what Gutman allows us to do.

La Laborde (track 22) and La Boucon (23) are named after star pupils but neither offers scope for the kind of display we might have expected for young virtuosi. Neither here nor elsewhere is Gutman concerned to offer a display of virtuoso pianism for its own sake but he keeps completely within the spirit of the music. (Which again reminds me to ask why not play the music on the original instrument?)

Stephen Gutman himself partly answers this question in the second part of the notes, an eloquent apologia. His playing and his words persuade me that he does not harm the music, though I’m not convinced by the second leg of his argument, that "the piano could even bring something to the table in our appreciation of the music". (p.11) This section of the notes makes an excellent pendant to Professor Sadler’s more scholarly opening. In particular, Gutman’s discussion of ornamentation is well worth reading, with his emphasis on the porte de voix (appoggiatura) and down-playing of the role of the pincé (trill to the lower note).

One of the ways in which operatic music was disseminated in earlier centuries was via keyboard transcriptions or other arrangements, such as those which Triebensee later made of Mozart. Claude-Bénigne Balbastre’s 1748 arrangement of movements from Rameau’s Pigmalion (1748) was followed by a version of Les Paladins, a rearguard work for the harpsichord from a composer who despised the then infant fortepiano, now, ironically, arranged for the descendant of that fledgling instrument. Gutman’s nimble performance of the Air des paladins from that suite makes a fitting conclusion to a recording which I found myself enjoying and recommending much more than I expected.

Just to make sure that I had not over-compensated for my general dislike of harpsichord music on the piano, I listened to the CD all the way through twice more without changing my mind. I can’t pretend that this will always be my preferred recording of these works but I’m sure it won’t disappear into the limbo of forgotten recordings either. Those who actively prefer the piano in this repertoire may purchase with confidence. Harpsichord-lovers have my word that they will not be offended.

Brian Wilson


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