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Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764) Complete Solo Keyboard Works
Steven Devine (harpsichord)
Robin Bigwood (2nd harpsichord)
rec. 2013-17, St John the Evangelist, Oxford; Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, UK RESONUS RES10214 [3 CDs: 219:39]
I know a music enthusiast who once held the opinion that there was no baroque music outside Germany and Italy, I am glad to say that after introducing him to French music of the period he became an ardent enthusiast, saying that he saw Rameau as the epitome and the finest exponent of the art. Whilst I agree in some respect with his view, his operas and ballets certainly shine with originality, his harpsichord music, although it is represented in the catalogues with more recordings than any other French baroque composer, of which I do have a fair number, is perhaps less original and shows the progression of the French harpsichord school. That being said, this collection of the complete keyboard music, is more complete than most in that it includes his transcription of the ballet that he drew from his opera Les Indes Galantes, with some of his most original music being within this suite.
This three-disc set opens with Premier Livre de Pièces de Clavecin, which is thought to have been Rameau’s earliest composition, and shows the young composer building upon the French tradition of the harpsichord suite, and in particular those of Louis Marchand, who Rameau had just succeeded as organist at the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris. The Suite of ten pieces that loosely follow the sequence of French dance tunes which are grouped around the keys of A minor and A Major. The suite also contains a Prélude, the first section of which pays homage to the earlier French harpsichord composer, who themselves derived their technique from the French style of lute playing, with the second section is in the form of a gigue. The Suite ends with a Menuet that is Bach-like in its formation rather than the typical French style of the dance. Steven Devine offers the slowest performance of this Suite that I have, it is nearly five minutes slower than Christophe Rousset (425 888-2), but then I haven’t found anyone who plays it quicker than Rousset and wonder if he would himself play the Suite as quickly now as he did back in 1989. Devine’s performance does bring out the elegance of the French style and even at the slower pace it does not lack excitement.
The Pièces de Clavecin of 1724 offers two suites, one in E minor/Major the second in D minor/Major, here Devine follows most performers in dividing the suites, only Rousset plays the pieces and not indicating when the first suite ends and the second begins. Only Devine and Rousset include the short Menuet en rondeau in C, a piece that the composer included in his Table des agréments that shows the performer how to interpret the various ornaments he employs in the suites, in this case it makes more sense to place it, as Rousset did, at the beginning of the suites rather than at the end as Devine has. Devine is again slower in his execution, but this brings out the stately nature of some of the pieces, for example the noble Allemande that opens the Suite in E. Here Devine shows that there is clearly another way to perform these pieces and that you do not have to play them at breakneck speed in order for the pieces to be of interest.
The grace with which Steven Devine performs the pieces from 1724 is carried over into the Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin of 1728, where he once again shows that quicker tempos are not the be all and end all. Here again Devine is the slowest recording that I have, but his playing shows a simple elegance in the slower pieces whilst still portraying the gaiety of the faster courtly dances. The most famous of all the 1728 pieces, if not his entire output, is La poule from the Suite in G Major / minor, here Rameau’s ingenious and spirited imitation of a hen has won the piece deserved popularity. Devine places this piece after the Menuet’s, unlike Russet and Trevor Pinnock whose chicken has certainly had its caffeine injection, as he presents the quickest on record that I know. In the performances that I own, this makes it three to two in favour of placing La poule after the Menuet’s. In comparison to Pinnock’s chicken, Devine’s, in over twice the length despite this this stately bird, still posses all the humour of this piece, in fact Devine is able to accentuate it more than the rocket propelled chickens of some performers.
Before discussing Les Indes Galantes, I would like to comment on the pieces that conclude disc three. The Cinq Pièces of 1741 are in fact the five solo harpsichord pieces from the Pièces de Clavecin en Concerts of that year, and one of my favourite works by the composer. The five short pieces are usually performed as four, with La Timide containing the two Rondeau’s. Divine’s playing is excellent, and has quickly become my favourite on disc, it is much more preferable than those by Gilbert Rowland (8.553048) and Pinnock (CRD 35112), although the latter does offer the listener a sixth piece, La Pantomime, which Pinnock himself transcribed from the opening movement of the fourth suite. The other piece is La Dauphine, Rameau’s final harpsichord was composed for Maria-Joseph of Saxony who became Dauphine on the occasion of wedding the Dauphin, Louis the son of Louis XV, who died before he could ascend to the throne. Here Devine opts for the middle ground and adopts a pace between Rowland, the quickest and Rousset the slowest, his performance one of stately grace.
When it comes to Les Indes Galantes, this set is unique in its inclusion of the suite from the opera which was published in 1735. Thought to be an arrangement for rehearsal purpose only, this arrangement is more often than not, forgotten about and missed out of Rameau’s cannon of harpsichord music. If you compare it to to the twenty-four-piece suite wonderfully performed by the Orchestre de la Chapelle Royale and Philippe Herreweghe (HMA 1901130) there are distinct similarities, however, there are also places where this harpsichord suite differs greatly from the ballet score, this is down to the inclusion of a number of vocal pieces as well as the omission of pieces that occur in the orchestral score. This is still an exciting and interesting inclusion in this set, despite being restricted to the single instrument the harpsichord still manages to portray the action and drama of both the opera and the ballet. This is largely down to the spirited performance of Steven Devine, who brings sense of movement and character to his playing of the score, this is wonderful music and it has an ability to thrill the listener with its many twists and turns of the plot. Who cares if the score was purely meant for rehearsal purposes, it is an important addition to the recorded catalogue of Rameau’s music, and not just of his harpsichord works.
This is an essential set, and not just for the inclusion of Les Indes Galantes, Steven Divine opens up the music of the suites to a more thoughtful performance, one which does not rely on fireworks to show the mastery of Rameau as a composer of keyboard music. Divine's booklet notes are excellent and include some quotes from the composer himself that add an air of authenticity. The recorded sound is quite natural with the acoustic helping to bring the best out of the instrument. Stuart Sillitoe
Premier Livre de Pièces de Clavecin (1706)
Suite in A minor [23:06]
Pièces de Clavecin (1724, revised 1731)
Suite in E minor / Major [22:03]
Suite in D minor / Major [33:01]
Menuet en rondeau [1:01] Disc 2
Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin (1728)
Suite in A minor / Major [31:49]
Suite in G Major / minor [34:47] Disc 3
Les Indes Galantes [55:35]
Cinq Pièces (1741) [12;44]
La Dauphine [3:30]
Les Indes Galantes: Air pour Zéphire (transcribed by Steven Devine) [1:22]