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Jean Rondeau, No Smoke or Mirrors

available at Amazon
Imagine (Bach), J. Rondeau

(released on January 27, 2015)
Erato 825646220045 | 79'56"
For many listeners, even those judging high-level music competitions, what they see is more important than what they hear. This phenomenon is likely made worse with an instrument like the harpsichord, which listeners may not have heard all that many times, meaning that image or superficial appeal can sometimes trump musical substance. One worries that something like that is at play in the packaging of young French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau, who made his Washington debut on Tuesday night at the French Embassy. The youngest first-prize winner at the Bruges competition, Rondeau's star is on the rise, as seen in his selection to play with Emmanuelle Haïm and Le Concert d'Astrée at the Victoires de la musique this year.

In this program, Rondeau excelled in several slow-tempo sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, often slathering on a thick layer of rubato, teasing out curled phrases in the C major and F minor sonatas (KK. 132 and 481, both marked "cantabile"). He used the instrument, built by Thomas and Barbara Wolf and now owned by the University of Maryland, in a fairly straightforward way, combining the two 8' stops for occasional antiphonal effects and changes on repeats, as in the D minor sonata (K. 213) and the A major sonata (K. 208), and not using the instrument's other stops. Seeming to recognize his strength, Rondeau included only two sonatas in faster tempos, not to the most pleasing effect, with inelegant hand crossings in the D major (K. 119) but savoring the piled-up dissonant chords and guitar-like figuration in the A minor (K. 175).

Other Reviews:

Patrick Rucker, Young harpsichordist continues to amaze (Washington Post, June 18)
More interesting were the transcriptions of Bach pieces that filled out the program, featured on Rondeau's new disc for Erato. In his slightly odd program notes for the recording, Rondeau describes his interest in "slipping in" to Bach's works, so daunting, by a "smaller human-sized door" by way of such transcriptions, which are "an apprentice's exercise," a way "to learn how the music is made." (To read more of Rondeau's thoughts in his own words, see the interview he gave this month to La Tribune de Genève.) The prelude from the C minor suite (BWV 997, originally for the Lautenwerk) was in the same vein as the slow Scarlatti pieces, not requiring many changes to be played on the harpsichord. With the famous D minor chaconne (from the second sonata for solo violin), Rondeau began with the transcription by Brahms, for the piano, left hand, but filled it out for both hands, although not in any way as vast as the devilish transcription by Busoni. The recital ended with the Italian Concerto (BWV 971), offered as a sort of "negative image" of transcription, since this is an orchestral genre rendered by Bach on a single keyboard, and played with almost mechanical regularity of tempo. A single encore sounded like another Scarlatti sonata.

1 comment:

Rob Haskins said...

I enjoyed your review of this concert. However, I find it strange that you included a link to NPR's fine interview with Mahan Esfahani with the phrase "image of superficial appeal can sometimes trump musical substance." It seems an odd way to refer to Esfahani, who's won several important prizes for his recordings (including the Diapason d'Or) and now has a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. To each his own, I suppose. Both artists are great modern exponents for the harpsichord.