When I heard Angela Hewitt play one of the Rameau suites (Suite en La, from Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin, c. 1728) at Shriver Hall in May (Angela Hewitt: She of Supreme Tastefulness, May 17), it was her first public performance of the work. Not only was a major concert artist playing Rameau, Hewitt announced that she was going to record three of the Rameau suites for Hyperion, a recording that she has indeed finished (in the Dolomites this June), set for release next January. In anticipation of that joyous event, I have been listening to a handful of recent recordings of the Rameau suites, two made on piano and two on harpsichord.
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A Basket of Wild Strawberries, keyboard works by Rameau, Tzimon Barto (released on April 18, 2006)
Barto profits fully from the major advantage offered by the piano over the harpsichord for these pieces, a wide range of dynamics and articulations. In "Le Rappel des oiseaux" (Suite en Mi, Pièces de clavecin, 1724/31), he captures a delightful twittering of birds back and forth in antiphonal cacophony. The "Tambourin" from the same suite is likewise full of evocatively percussive sounds. He also gives the shortest (0:59), most exciting reading of "La Joyeuse" (Suite en Ré from the same book), that whirls up to a crashing fff, a massive crescendo that is just not possible on the harpsichord.
Alexandre Tharaud joue Rameau (released on February 12, 2002)
Tharaud sounds like he is trying to make the piano mimic a harpsichord, with rolls and ornaments and an often percussive articulation. He scrupulously and gracefully observes the agréments Rameau placed in the scores, and he adds dots to make notes inégales in some of the movements (as in the A minor allemande). He creates such fine voicings, with each line of the polyphonic texture delineated in the A minor courante (La Hewitt achieved a similar layering of voices). Tharaud's rendition of the Gavotte and its famous doubles -- recorded on all four of the discs under review -- is the best at capturing the stateliness of the gavotte and the rhythmic vitality and differences in texture among the six ornamented versions. The sixième double is a toe-tapper.
The characters in the Suite en Sol are quite individual, like the dry, bumpy "Les Tricotets" (a dance so named because the rapid movement of the feet back and forth was similar to the clicking of knitting needles) and hennish "La Poule." Tharaud also gives a nice nod to the nationalistic embrace of Rameau's music by French composers in the 19th and 20th centuries, by ending with Debussy's lovely Hommage à Rameau. Vincent d'Indy even went so far, in his edition of the complete works of Rameau, as falsifying the quality of Rameau's orchestration, to enhance the French composer's reputation in that musical area.
Rameau: Les Cyclopes - Pièces de Clavecin, Trevor Pinnock, harpsichord (released on April 5, 2005)
William Christie, harpsichord (2003)
Gilbert Rowland, harpsichord (1995)
Pinnock's "Le Rappel des Oiseaux" from the E minor suite is extremely evocative, with the only use of the harpsichord's 4' stop to create the contrast of high-voiced birds with deeper sounds. Again, he is much faster (2:43) than Kiener (3:20), although Tzimon Barto's version (1:23) is the most wildly avian in sound. Apparently, Hector Berlioz, an early riser, liked to play this conversation of birds first thing in the morning on his old harpsichord, to the annoyance of the people who lived near his apartment. The Pinnock CD is a most enjoyable recording, with some very exciting playing.
Intégrale des pièces de clavecin, Michel Kiener, harpsichord (released on November 11, 2003)
Ondine ODE 1067-2 / Harmonia Mundi HMI 987039.40 / Avie AV 2056 / Harmonia Mundi HMC 901754