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Dimanche des Rameaux

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)
The most recent one, by American pianist Tzimon Barto takes its title, A Basket of Wild Strawberries, from the Chardin painting featured on its cover, Le panier de fraises des bois (1760/61, currently in the possession of a private collector in Paris). When we lived in France, I liked to buy fraises des bois at markets: they are an explosion of goodness in a very small package, and that pile of them in Chardin's little painting is mouth-watering. This disc, recorded in Finland for Ondine, gives a similar impression, as Barto mines selections from four suites for their most striking savors. The playing is wildly fanciful, with tempi stretched with abandon, for dramatic effect and in a way that has not annoyed me. For dance pieces, I tend to favor a fairly regular rhythmic approach that reflects what the music is supposed to be accompanying. However, so many of the Rameau pieces are descriptive miniatures with colorful titles, even though they still often refer to dance types.

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.

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Alexandre Tharaud joue Rameau (released on February 12, 2002)
Alexandre Tharaud released a popular Rameau recital in 2002, in which he played the two suites (in A and in G) from Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin, c. 1728, on a Steinway. Where Tzimon Barto uses the piano for its pianism, Tharaud creates something much more Baroque in style. In an interview with Christian Girardin in the CD booklet, Tharaud acknowledged his appreciation for the work of Baroque specialists: "It's obvious that today, after the phenomenal work of many musicologists and of musicians like William Christie, Christophe Rousset, Scott Ross, and Olivier Baumont, we play Rameau with a much more profound sense of the style. [...] I no longer play Bach and Scarlatti in the same way as before. I think that nowadays it's essential for a pianist to immerse himself in Baroque music."

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.

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Rameau: Les Cyclopes - Pièces de Clavecin, Trevor Pinnock, harpsichord (released on April 5, 2005)
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William Christie, harpsichord (2003)

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Gilbert Rowland, harpsichord (1995)
Of the two recordings made on harpsichords, Trevor Pinnock's disc Les Cyclopes from last year is the better one. Pinnock played an 18th-century harpsichord that was made by Jean Goernens (Paris, 1764) and kept there. It now belongs to a collection of historical instruments at the University of Edinburgh, where it has been lovingly restored (with new quills and so on) and preserved. It seems plausible to believe that a contemporary of Rameau played his suites on this very instrument. The fine quality and upkeep of the instrument, combined with Pinnock's extraordinary technique, allow him to give some remarkably fast and virtuosic performances, even moreso than on his recording of the complete Rameau suites in the 1970s. His readings of some movements are even faster on the harpsichord than those on piano: "La Poule" clucks and pecks in frenetically at 4:56 (compared to 5:47 from Tharaud and 7:01 from Michel Kiener), and the delicate, lute-stopped "Fanfarinette" at 2:05 beats out Kiener (2:31) and Tharaud (2:46). However, Pinnock's Gavotte and doubles sound a little lethargic.

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.

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Intégrale des pièces de clavecin, Michel Kiener, harpsichord (released on November 11, 2003)
The only recording of the complete Rameau keyboard works under review is Michel Kiener's 2-CD set on harpsichord. By contrast to the Pinnock disc, Kiener's instrument (a William Dowd copy of a Nicolas Blanchet harpsichord) sounds loud and clumsy, and Kiener's playing is generally too square and timid by comparison. That is not to say that there are not things to be enjoyed on this disc. Not least are those pieces that are not on any of the other recordings, including most of the movements from Rameau's first book of pieces for the keyboard, from 1706 (Barto recorded only half of them, and the others preferred the later works). Actually, the square style of playing is suited to the folksy, bagpipe sounds of the peasant movements ("Musette en Rondeau," "Tambourin," and "La Villageoise") that end the Suite en Mi. Kiener is the only one of the four to record Rameau's final piece for keyboard, "La Dauphine" (1747), a rather mediocre piece composed in honor of the marriage of the Dauphin, the heir to the French throne, and dedicated to his new wife.

Ondine ODE 1067-2 / Harmonia Mundi HMI 987039.40 / Avie AV 2056 / Harmonia Mundi HMC 901754

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