Divine Noise- Theatrical Music for two Harpsichords Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
Platée (arr. Guillermo Brachetta) [53:20] François COUPERIN (1668-1733) Apothéose de Lully: La Paix du Parnasse, Sonate en trio [7:55] Gaspard LE ROUX (c.1660-1707)
Suite in F [13:07]
Guillermo Brachetta, Menno van Delft (harpsichord)
rec. 28-31 May 2014, Oude Kerk, Bunnik, Netherlands. DDD RESONUS RES10145 [74:26]
We know of little music for two keyboards from before the second half of the 18th century. Even pieces for keyboard à quatre mains are pretty rare. There are several reasons for this. Keyboard music was for the most part written for amateurs and keyboards - first the harpsichord, later the fortepiano - were quite expensive. The booklet for the present disc quotes the English music journalist Charles Burney who wrote: "The inconvenience of having two harpsichords or two piano-fortes, in the same room, and the short time they remain exactly in tune together, have prevented frequent trials, and even the cultivation of this species of music, notwithstanding all the advantages which, in other respects, it offers to musical students." Guillermo Brachetta adds: "Both we and our recording engineer can well testify to this remark and confirm that the amount of time two harpsichords actually remain in tune together is shockingly brief!"
He mentions two pieces for two keyboards: A Fancy for two to play by Thomas Tomkins and A Verse for two to play by Nicholas Carlton - not 'Carlston' as the booklet has it. There is more if we include pieces for two organs: many Italian churches of that time had two organs at the opposing sides of the choir: one on the 'epistle side', and therefore called the 'Epistle organ', and one at the 'gospel side' - the 'Gospel organ'.
There can be little doubt that music for two harpsichords was more frequently played than the lack of music specifically intended for two keyboards suggests. Improvisation and arrangement were two significant features of keyboard playing in the baroque era. One could probably say that there is a kind of 'hidden repertoire' for two keyboards. It is especially interesting to read what François Couperin had to say about this. In the preface to his Apothéose de Lully he states that this piece, as well as the Apothéose de Corelli and "the complete book of trios which I hope to publish", can be played on two harpsichords. "I play them this way with my family and with my students, and it works very well, by playing the premier dessus and the bass on one harpsichord and the second dessus with the same bass in unison on the other one". The Apothéose de Lully ends with a sonate en trio in which the French and Italian styles - whose differences are the subject of this piece - are mingled. This trio sonata is played here on two harpsichords.
Another composer who specifically referred to the option of playing his harpsichord works on two keyboards was Gaspard Le Roux. Little is known about him: it is quite odd that he was called "famous music teacher" in the newspaper Mercure de France in 1696 but that his identity is not known. Most composers of his time participated in public concerts but he is never named. In the Almanac of 1705 which lists the main musicians of the time with their addresses, he is mentioned but no address is given. It has led the harpsichordist Iakovos Pappas, in the booklet to his recording of Le Roux's complete keyboard music (Arkadia, 1993), to suggest that the true author of these pieces was the son of Jean-Henry d'Anglebert, also because of the noticeable influence of the latter. Whether there is any truth in that is impossible to say. The Pièces de clavessin which were printed in 1705 is the only extant collection of his music. Otherwise only one air and a motet are attributed to him.
This collection includes 47 pieces; 41 of them are grouped according to key in seven suites. There is something special about this collection: every piece is printed in two versions, one for single harpsichord, and a second with two treble lines and a figured bass. Le Roux suggested three different ways of performing these alternative versions. The first is the harpsichordist singing the upper voice and providing an accompaniment from the figured bass. The second is a performance as instrumental trios, with two melody instruments and bc. The third option is to create a second harpsichord part on the basis of the second treble line and the bass. The book also includes six pieces which have an alternative version which Le Roux has specifically worked out for a second harpsichord. This is the basis for the performance of the Suite in F here. It is a nice complement to the recording of Pappas where this suite is played on a single harpsichord.
The largest part of this disc is devoted to Jean-Philippe Rameau. Although he published a couple of books with harpsichord pieces the performers have turned to one of his works for the stage: Platée, a comédie-lyrique which was first performed in 1745. Guillermo Brachetta transcribed a number of instrumental movements and three arias for two harpsichords. The tradition of transcribing fragments from operas - especially instrumental movements - dates from the late 17th century, when Jean Henry d'Anglebert transcribed dances from operas by Lully. This habit further developed in the 18th century; one of the exponents of this practice was Claude-Bénigne Balbastre. In Rameau's oeuvre the genres of opera and music for keyboard are explicitly linked. He transcribed several of his harpsichord pieces for orchestra in order to include them in his music for the stage. He also published 30 pieces from Les Indes Galantes, an opéra-ballet of 1735, on two staves, and divided into four concerts, explicitly intended to be played at the harpsichord. Fairly recently Pierre Hantaï and Skip Sempé recorded a whole disc with Symphonies à deux clavecins, taken from the theatrical output of Rameau (Mirare, 2013).
Brachetta indicates that the transcription was a challenge, because of this work's grander scale, in comparison to the pieces by Couperin and Le Roux. "We decided to texturise the arrangement so its theatrical nature would become more apparent in contrast with the other works of this album, which have a more chamber music-like approach. Searching for an operatic effect and more exaggerated gestures, we added extra voices and small counterpoints here and there." This seems a sensitive approach which is in line with the spirit of the time. A too literal transcription would have been unconvincing: the result has to be a work which suggests that it was conceived for two harpsichords. That is exactly how this arrangement - a better word for what Brachetta has done - sounds. The dramatic character has been kept alive which is not only the result of Brachetta's work as an arranger but is also the result of how he and Menno van Delft - one of his former teachers - perform it. They play with theatrical flair, and that comes especially to the fore in some of the most dramatic pieces. It starts with the overture which gives some indication of what is to come. Aux langueurs d'Apollon is one of the three arias, and it is the most virtuosic aria of the opera. It is given a brilliant performance here. The ensuing Menuets dans le gout de vielle are just as good. The long chaconne receives an engaging performance. There is also some more introverted stuff, such as the air pour des fous tristes. The pieces by Couperin and Le Roux receive equally fine performances.
Couperin's statement quoted above and a disc like this - as well as the one by Hantaï and Sempé - show that a considerable part of the music written under the ancien régime can be played on two harpsichords, even when written for very different scorings. This considerably extends the repertoire of harpsichordists and it would be nice if they would explore this way of approaching French music from the time of Couperin and Rameau.
This disc is a wonderful example of what such undertakings could bring us.