Ever since Rameau’s music for the theatre was rediscovered
it has overshadowed his contributions to the keyboard suite.
In this department he has always remained in the shadows of
his slightly older contemporary François Couperin. Admittedly,
the latter's output of keyboard works is much larger, but Rameau
is an important link in the development of keyboard music in
the 18th century.
Rameau's first book of harpsichord pieces was printed in 1706,
seven years ahead of Couperin's first book. The last piece by
Rameau dates from 1747, and during those more than 40 years
of composing for the harpsichord Rameau developed from being
close to Couperin to a more virtuosic and often dramatic style.
An example of the former is the piece from the second book of
1724 which opens this disc: L'Entretien des Muses, an
elegant character piece in which a dialogue between the Muses
Next follow the two suites from the third book. It was called
Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin, and dates from
around 1728. The word nouvelles (new) refers firstly
to the fact that this book contained no music which he had previously
published. But it can also be interpreted as 'new in style'.
The Suite in a minor seems to be quite traditional as
it opens with an allemande, a courante and a sarabande. But
these dances have little in common with the traditional dances
in French harpsichord suites of the past. The allemande is a
quite virtuosic and long piece, lasting almost eight minutes.
Traditionally the sarabande was always slow and rather introverted;
here it is quite theatrical. It is no surprise that Rameau later
transcribed it for orchestra and included it in his tragédie
en musique Zoroastre. In the late 17th century Jean-Henry
d'Anglebert transcribed pieces from operas by Lully for harpsichord.
But Rameau did exactly the opposite. He started to write operas
when most of his harpsichord music had already been published,
so it was only logical to use some of his most theatrical pieces
for the real theatre.
Rameau's harpsichord works of 1728 also reflect an increasing
virtuosity, as Les Trois Mains show. Here he suggests
three hands playing at the keyboard through exploiting the crossing
of the hands and arpeggios which are divided between the two
hands. La Fanfarinette is reminiscent of Couperin again,
whereas La Triomphante is an extraverted piece as the
title suggests. The suite ends with a Gavotte with six doubles,
and here we hear an increase in virtuosity and density of texture.
Two movements from the Suite in G also found their way
into Rameau's theatrical works. The first menuet was later included
in Zoroastre, whereas Les Sauvages became part
of Les Indes Galantes. This piece reminds us of an interesting
aspect of European - and in particular French - history: the
fascination with non-European cultures. It started in the second
half of the 17th century, as the concluding piece on the programme
shows. Jean-Henry d'Anglebert transcribed a chaconne from Lully's
tragédie en musique Phaeton from 1683, which is played
while Egyptians, Ethiopians and Indians - the latter we would
call today 'native Americans' - are dancing. Knowledge about
these exotic cultures was limited, and the perception was more
based on myth than fact. Therefore one commentator writes that
the last movement of Rameau's Suite in G, L'Égyptienne,
is more like a depiction of a gypsy than of an Egyptian woman.
Returning to Les Sauvages, this was directly inspired
by the 'exhibition' - there is no other word for it - of two
'native Americans' in Paris in 1725.
This suite also contains one of Rameau's most famous harpsichord
pieces, La Poule, the hen. The whole piece is based on
five repeated notes, which return continuously, almost ad
nauseam, but in an increasingly 'aggressive' way. The suite
starts with another character piece, Les Tricotets, the
knitters. Here we also frequently hear short repeated notes,
probably depicting the clicking of knitting pins. Lastly, there
is a piece called L'Enharmonique, which is remarkable
because of its harmonic progressions. It reminds us of the fact
that Rameau was also an important theorist who wrote about harmony
in his Traité de l'harmonie (1722).
There are several recordings of Rameau's complete harpsichord
works on the market. But not everyone is interested in having
the whole package. This disc brings a very good and revealing
survey of how Rameau developed as a composer of keyboard music.
The Finnish harpsichordist Assi Karttunen delivers a very fine
performance, in which she captures the character of the various
pieces quite well. I generally like her use of subtle rubato
which in most cases is quite effective. Only sometimes does
it seem less appropriate, for instance in Les Sauvages
which in my view should be played in a more strict rhythm. In
La Poule Karttunen probably does a little too much. In
the Gavotte from the Suite in a minor the notes in the arpeggios
are hardly discernible. But that may be Ms Karttunen's interpretation
of Rameau's indication that they should be played "as if
with drumsticks", as she writes in the liner-notes.
Anyway, this is a highly enjoyable and captivating recording.
Assi Karttunen's performances are generally convincing. But
it is first and foremost Rameau's brilliant and versatile harpsichord
music which makes this disc a winner.
Johan van Veen