His Playing Is Crystalline
The MHS Review 376 Vol. 10, No. 16 • 1986
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David M. Greene
Though one commentator; I think correctly, hails Rameau's keyboard music as "the absolute summit of French harpsichord music," he wrote surprisingly little of it in his nearly 81 years of life.
Allow me, in all modesty, to quote from Greene's Biographical Encyclopedia of Composers (New York: Doubleday, 1985, S30. 00): " ... He is, in several respects, one of the towering figures in the history of music. In a sense he was, in France, what his contemporary J.S. Bach was in Germany: the culmination of the Baroque." The author goes on to say that his harmony text "laid out the whys and wherefores of harmonic practice," codifying and making an intelligent rationale for what composers had been doing since the great musical upheaval at the outset of the 17th century.
His Pieces pour clavecin en concert elevated the keyboard, in ensemble music, from a subservient supporting role to equal stardom with the other instruments. In his operas "he created genuine music dramas, developed the concept of ensemble numbers, and made the orchestra a functional part of the musico-dramatic effect". And in his keyboard music "he summed up the whole French tradition" that had begun with Chambonnieres, d'Anglebert, and Louis Couperin.
Though one commentator; I think correctly, hails Rameau's keyboard music as "the absolute summit of French harpsichord music," he wrote surprisingly little of it in his nearly 81 years of life. The entire output, in fact, fits neatly on three LP records (see MHS 831414L), as contrasted with 16 for Couperin le grand 's. This fact is in itself paradoxical.
Rameau, born in Dijon, Burgundy two-and-a-half years before J.S. Bach and Handel, was the son of an organist who gave him his basic musical training. The boy was meant for the law but was bounced from school for neglecting his lessons. After a brief stint with a traveling musical troupe, he settled down to following in the paternal trade. After two or three years as organist in the cathedrals of Avignon and Clermont (which had not then merged with Montferrand to become Clermont-Ferrand), he tried Paris, where he published his first book of keyboard pieces and played in less-important churches.
Lack of success took him to Lyons and then, in 1715, back to Clermont for eight years. Having deliberately got himself canned there, he migrated back to Paris, where he apparently supported himself by teaching. During that period he published his controversial harmony text and the second and third harpsichord collections. Oddly he left nothing for organ. His only other keyboard works were five pieces arranged from the trios, and La Dauphine, a realization of an improvisation for a royal wedding.
At least superficially the three books of clavecin pieces are very much in the French mainstream. The first is, in fact, an expanded dance suite (such as Bach wrote) complete with prelude. The two later collections, from which our two suites are drawn, mix the dance movements with Couperinesque genrepieces ( or Charakterstucke as a later age would term them). But, among other personal touches are experiments with rondeauform, and a dramatic forcefulness that at times seems to ask more of the tinkly instrument than it can deliver.
Acquaintances keep singing to me the praises of Trevor Pinnock, but I think this is the first time I've understood their enthusiasm. Though I think Charles O'Connell's observation that the harpsichord sounds like an amplification of a fly walking on a window-screen is excessive, I have to admit that the blur produced by a good many of its players bores me. Though Pinnock has a demon technique, his playing is crystalline, and the pieces emerge with form and melody that 1 never knew they had.
Review of Jean-Philippe Rameau, Suite in A Minor (from Pieces de clavecin avec une methode sur la mecanique des doigts) i (from Nouvelles suites de pieces de clavecin) Suite in E Minor (from Pieces de clavecin avec une methode sur la mecanique des doigts)