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The MHS Review 399 VOL. 12, NO.3 • 1988

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Frank Cooper


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Starting about 20 years ago, Trevor Pin­nock has carved out an enviable place for himself among the world's ever-growing population of skilled harpsichordists. His sure fingers, solid scholarship, and musi­cianly gifts have won encomiums from the toughest critics and the ticket-buying public.

Recordings have allowed music lovers far beyond the range of Mr. Pinnock's tours as a soloist (and as director of The English Concert) to enjoy his artistry and the in­teresting repertoire it encompasses. The present release, originating on the British CRD label (now hard to find in the US), contains fully one-third of a great French composer's total output for the solo harp­sichord. The instrument employed was bas­ed closely upon an 18th-century original by Blanchet, whose harpsichords were un­doubtedly played by Rameau himself.

Those points made, what about the music? Does it really speak to us today or is it only an historical curiosity? I am pleas­ed to report that some of Rameau 's best and most popular pieces number among the 19 titles of these two suites: Les tendres plaintes (Tender complaints, of surpassing sweetness); Les Niais de Sologne (an un­translatable title--about which more later, but a brilliant theme-and-variations with one of the most difficult left-hand parts in Rameau's works); L'entretien des Muses (Conversation of the muses, a subtle and finely wrought essay in musical probity); Les tourbillons (Dust swirls, evoking in its central section. via arpeggios, dust raised by high winds); Les cyclopes (Cyclops, dreadful creatures represented by batteries, rapid alternations of the hands, clattering away at their anvils); La poule (The hen, literally clucking her path through the bar­nyard); Les sauvages (Savages, characteriz­ing the dances of American Indians from Louisiana who flabbergasted the Parisians in 1725); L'enharmonique (another title best left untranslated but a connoisseur's piece which flows from key to key like oil on water): and Legiptienne (The Egyptian, a hard-driving little toccata which seems to have been titled anomalously). Delightful? You bet, but never extraneous.

"It is a mistake," scholar David Fuller reminds us, "to dismiss character-titles in this music as quaint irrelevancies ... Rameau took the 'imitation of nature' very serious­ly"; he wanted to be admired for having rendered his titles so exactly. Naturally, we enjoy them from a different perspective than did people in Rameau 's time. The references made by some of the titles escape our full understanding today.

For example, we wonder what may be the subject of the Muses' conversation although we do not doubt its seriousness. Scholars, too, puzzle over the meanings. Cuthbert Girdlestone, Rameau's biographer, says that Le lardon refers to strips of bacon while Fuller believes it means a jibe or taunt. The present ambiguities are part of the fun, I think. Les Niais de Sologne, to Girdlestone, represents simpletons from the town of Sologne. But Fuller discovered the exact term defined in a 1690 dictionary as ''someone who deceives himself to his own profit."

While scholarship marches on, the music is at hand to charm us. Its Frenchiness knows no bounds of history, the melodic lines aspiring at times to the nature of folksong and the rhythms keeping pace with Terpsichore herself. The British Mr. Pinnock meets the Gallic Monsieur Rameau head on in a timeless match that translates into purest pleasure.

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