Jean-Philippe Rameau BACH (1683-1764)

Les Indes Galantes
Premier Concert (sol majeur & mineur) [15.10]
Deuxième Concert (ré majeur & mineur) [20.32]
Troisième Concert (sol mineur & majeur) [5.30]
Quatrième Concert (do mineur) [12.07]
Quatrième et nouvelle entrée: les Sauvages [9.38]
Christophe Rousset (harpsichord - Jean-Henry Hemsch, Paris, 1761).
rec. February 2007, Musée de la musique, Cité de la musique, Paris, France.
AMBROISIE AM152 [62.57]
Rameau composed the “opera-ballet” Les Indes Galantes in 1735, and revised it the following year. While the reaction of the public was “little better than luke-warm”, the opera was performed 185 times between its premiere and 1761. Some time after the initial composition - the notes to this disc do not specify the date - a harpsichord transcription or reduction was made of parts of the work. In all, the original edition contained 37 pieces, but Christophe Rousset states that the numbering was erroneous, with certain two-part pieces counting as two pieces. In the end, there are a total of 32 pieces though Rousset states that he does not feel that they were all designed to be played on the harpsichord, and “none is written in the idiomatic style of Rameau’s other harpsichord works”.
Rousset’s recording contains these 32 pieces, far more than other recordings of the work - such as Kenneth Gilbert’s - and longer in duration. At nearly 63 minutes the Rousset’s recording is twenty minutes longer than the Gilbert disc.
But let’s get to the music. I took out my recording of the opera Les Indes Galantes, directed by William Christie, and gave it a listen. Some years ago, I was a real fan of Rameau’s operas, but over time I’ve found them to be quite repetitive and somewhat boring. While the operas are full of nice bits - Rameau had a wonderful and unique way of creating catchy melodies - there are too many recitatives - though these are more interesting than later “classical” opera recitatives. I found it very difficult to listen to the entire opera Les Indes Galantes, and it seemed that the Rousset recording of the harpsichord transcription might contain just the “nice bits” and eschew the rest.
One shouldn’t compare the two types of music - orchestral and solo harpsichord - even though the tunes are the same. The orchestral version is richer and more obviously Rameau; his orchestrations were always interesting. From the first notes of the opening Overture in the harpsichord version, though, there is an obvious simplicity; this is not just a reduction, but there’s clearly no attempt to reproduce the texture of the original. This harpsichord version is, for the most part, not a virtuoso work, and was perhaps published for less experienced keyboard players. While the wit and charm of Rameau’s music is there, much of this music is very simple. The Musette en rondeau in the First Concert, for example, sounds like some of Henry Purcell’s harpsichord pieces; simple melodies with little ornamentation that can be played even by novices. Many of the other pieces have this simplicity; this is not to demean the melodies, but it doesn’t sound like there was a lot of attention paid to doing much more than simply transcribing the melodies and a simple accompaniment. The Air Tendre Pour La Rose in the Second Concert is another example: while this is a quite attractive piece, it is just a simple right-hand melody with sparse left-hand accompaniment. Melodically it is pretty; musically, it is bland.
I don’t mean to belittle the music too much, but its interest is somewhat limited, especially compared to the original opera - though it does leave out the boring bits. While this is an enjoyable disc, you might come away from it a bit unsatisfied. The music lacks “meat”; it’s attractive, but it’s not up to the standards of most of Rameau’s music. This fits with Rousset’s comment that the music is not “idiomatic” for the harpsichord. Compared with another Rousset recording of Rameau’s harpsichord music (on L’Oiseau Lyre) is like night and day. While Rameau was no Bach in his harpsichord compositions - his harpsichord works are typically French, more melodic than contrapuntal - these other works are far more recherché than this disc of transcriptions from Les Indes Galantes.
Nevertheless, the recording is excellent, and the harpsichord used has a lovely sound. For that reason, fans of Rameau or harpsichord music may want to pick up a copy of this disc. But those looking for a real musical experience may be let down.

Kirk McElhearn
An attractive, yet ultimately unsatisfying disc ... see Full Review