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Jean Philippe RAMEAU & Jean-Henry D'ANGLEBERT: "L'Égyptienne"

Assi Karttunen, harpsichord

rec: 2008/2009, Sipoo, Östersundom kyrka
Alba Records - ABCD 290 (© 2009) (69'53")

Jean-Henry D'ANGLEBERT (1635-1691): Chaconne de Phaeton [1]; Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764): L'Entretien des Muses [2]; Suite in G/g minor [3]; Suite in a minor [3]

(Sources: [1] Jean-Henry d'Anglebert, Pièces de clavecin, 1689; Jean-Philippe Rameau, [2] Pieces de clavessin avec une methode pour la mechanique des doigts, 1724; [3] Nouvelles suites de pieces de clavecin, c1728)

Ever since the music Jean-Philippe Rameau composed for the theatre was rediscovered it has overshadowed his contributions to the genre of the keyboard suite. In this department he has always remained in the shadows of his slightly older contemporary François Couperin. Admittedly, the latter's output of keyboard works is much larger, but Rameau is an important link in the development of keyboard music in the 18th century.

Rameau's first book of harpsichord pieces was printed in 1706, seven years ahead of Couperin's first book. The last piece by Rameau dates from 1747, and during those more than 40 years of composing for the harpsichord Rameau developed from being close to the style of Couperin to a more virtuosic and often dramatic style. An example of the former is the piece from the second book of 1724 which opens this disc: L'Entretien des Muses, an elegant character piece in which a dialogue between the Muses is depicted.

Next follow the two suites from the third book. It was called Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin, and dates from around 1728. The word nouvelles (new) refers firstly to the fact that this book contained no music which Rameau had previously published. But it can also be interpreted as 'new in style'. The Suite in a minor seems to be quite traditional as it opens with an allemande, a courante and a sarabande. But these dances have little in common with the traditional dances in French harpsichord suites of the past. The allemande is a quite virtuosic and long piece, lasting almost eight minutes. Traditionally the sarabande was always slow and rather introverted, but here it is quite theatrical. It is no surprise that Rameau later transcribed it for orchestra and included it in his tragédie en musique Zoroastre. In the late 17th century Jean-Henry d'Anglebert transcribed pieces from operas by Lully for harpsichord. But Rameau did exactly the opposite. He started to write operas when most of his harpsichord music had already been published, so it was only logical to use some of his most theatrical pieces for the real theatre.

Rameau's harpsichord works of 1728 also reflect an increasing virtuosity, as Les Trois Mains shows. Here he suggests three hands playing at the keyboard through exploiting the crossing of the hands and arpeggios which are devided between the two hands. La Fanfarinette is reminiscent of Couperin again, whereas La Triomphante is an extraverted piece as the title suggests. The suite ends with a Gavotte with six doubles, and here we hear an increase in virtuosity and density of texture.

Two movements from the Suite in G also found their way into Rameau's theatrical works. The first menuet was later included in Zoroastre, whereas Les Sauvages became part of Les Indes Galantes. This piece reminds us of an interesting aspect of European - and in particular French - history: the fascination with non-European cultures. It started in the second half of the 17th century, as the concluding piece on the programme shows. Jean-Henry d'Anglebert transcribed a chaconne from Lully's tragédie en musique Phaeton from 1683, which is played while Egyptians, Ethiopians and Indians - the latter we would call today 'native Americans' - are dancing. Knowledge about these exotic cultures was limited, and the perception was more based on myth than fact. Therefore one commentator writes that the last movement of Rameau's Suite in G, L'Égyptienne, is more like a depiction of a gypsy than of an Egyptian woman. Returning to Les Sauvages, this was directly inspired by the 'exhibition' - there is no other word for it - of two 'native Americans' in Paris in 1725.

This suite also contains one of Rameau's most famous harpsichord pieces, La Poule, the hen. The whole piece is based on five repeated notes, which return continuously, almost ad nauseam, but in an increasingly 'aggressive' way. The suite starts with another character piece, Les Tricotets, the knitters. Here we also frequently hear short repeated notes, probably depicting the clicking of knitting pins. Lastly, there is a piece called L'Enharmonique, which is remarkable because of its harmonic progressions. It reminds us of the fact that Rameau was also an important theorist who wrote about harmony in his Traité de l'harmonie (1722).

There are several recordings of Rameau's complete harpsichord works on the market. But not everyone is interested to have the whole package. This disc brings a very good and revealing survey of how Rameau developed as a composer of keyboard music. The Finnish harpsichordist Assi Karttunen delivers a very fine performance, in which she captures the character of the various pieces quite well. I generally like her use of subtle rubato which in most cases is quite effective. Only sometimes does it seem less appropriate, for instance in Les Sauvages which in my view should be played in a more strict rhythm. In La Poule Assi Karttunen probably does a little too much. In the Gavotte from the Suite in a minor the notes in the arpeggios are hardly discernible. But that may be Ms Karttunen's interpretation of Rameau's indication that they should be played "as if with drumsticks", as she writes in the liner notes.

Anyway, this is a highly enjoyable and captivating recording. Assi Karttunen's performances are generally convincing. But it is first and foremost Rameau's brilliant and versatile harpsichord music which makes this disc a winner.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Assi Karttunen

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