musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Joseph Nicolas Pancrace ROYER (1705 - 1755): Premier Livre de pièces pour clavecin, 1746

Christophe Rousset, harpsichord

rec: Feb 2007, Paris, Centre de la musique (Musée de la musique)
Ambroisie - AM 151 (© 2008) (58'56")

Allemande in c minor; L'Aimable in g minor; L'Incertaine in g minor; La Bagatelle in G - Suite de la Bagatelle in g minor; La Majestueuse in d minor; La Marche des Scythes in c minor; La Rémouleuse in G; La Sensible in c minor; La Zaïde in D; Le Vertigo in g minor; Les Matelots in d minor; Les Tendres Sentiments in g minor; Tambourins I & II in d minor

Joseph Nicolas Pancrace Royer is one of the lesser-known French composers who was active in the second quarter of the 18th century. Today he is almost exclusively known for his compositions for harpsichord, which were printed as Premier Livre de Pièces pour Clavecin in 1746. But he was also a prominent composer of operas and ballet music, part of which has been lost.

In 1730 he became maître de musique at the Paris opera, and that same year his first opera was performed, Pyrrhus, a tragedy in a prologue and five acts. In 1734 he was appointed maître de musique des enfants de France, which meant that he was responsible for the musical education of the children of King Louis XV. Several of them were musically gifted, and the first book of harpsichord pieces was dedicated to them.

This collection bears the traces of Royer's activities in the musical theatre. La Zaïde and La Marche des Scythes are arrangements of instrumental pieces from Royer's own opera Zaïde (1739). Les Matelots, Tambourin I and the Allemande are based on pieces from Le pouvoir de l'amour, a ballet héroïque, first performed in 1743. This was a pretty rare practice: Royer's colleague Jean-Philippe Rameau was almost the only other composer who transcribed pieces from his operas for the harpsichord. One has to go back to the late 17th century to find comparable transcriptions, when Jean-Henry d'Anglebert (1629-1691) included some transcriptions of works by Jean-Baptiste Lully in his Pièces de Clavecin of 1689.

The pieces in Royer's collection are grouped by keys: D major and minor, G major and minor and C minor, but without giving them the form of a suite. No less than seven are in the form of a rondeau, which reflects the taste of the time. Nevertheless, as Royer states in the preface: "The pieces are open to great variety, passing from the tender to the lively, from the simple to the tumultuous, often successively within the same piece".

To the tender belongs La Zaïde, which also has the indication 'tendrement'. It is dominated by long trills, and explores the central and upper part of the keyboard. Les Matelots reflects its operatic origin. The Tambourin I, with its drone, belongs to the 'tumultuous'.

L'Incertaine has the indication 'marqué', meaning that the melody is the focus of the piece. L'Aimable is 'gracieux', an elegant and quiet piece. Next follows La Bagatelle, a restless piece with short, pungent chords. La Remouleuse seems to refer to the knife grinder, and the repetition of a single motif probably depicts the continuous turning of the grindstone.

With Les Tendres Sentiments another rondeau of a tender character follows, which - like La Zaïde - moves in the middle and upper part of the keyboard. Le Vertigo means 'the capricious', and that is well expressed in the music, which contains strong contrasts in tempo and Affekt. It is also one of the most 'tumultuous' pieces of the collection, with heavy and frequently repeated chords at high speed.

The allemande is a traditional dance, which was part of virtually every keyboard suite of the 17th and 18th centuries. But Royer's Allemande in c minor has little in common with the allemandes of the past, being much more forceful and theatrical. La Sensible is, as the title suggests, much more tender and lyrical in character. The collection ends with another opera transcription, La Marche des Scythes, also 'tumultuous', with virtuosic scales and noisy chords.

Christophe Rousset uses a splendid historical harpsichord. It was built in the first half of the 18th century by the Parisian harpsichord maker Jean-Claude Goujon, and was extended in 1784 by Jacques Joachim Swanen. Rousset delivers brilliant performances in which the features of the various pieces is very well captured. The tempi are convincing, with the exception of Les Tendres Sentiments, which seems to me too slow, at the cost of the musical flow. The sound engineer has done an outstanding job as well.

The programme notes - in French and English - are adequate, but the English translation is difficult to read as the print isn't very clear and the letters are grey instead of black. Even worse are the pages with the information about the harpsichord: black letters on a pink background. Who comes up with something like that? It is also regrettable that the track-list omits to give the keys and the character indications.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Christophe Rousset

CD Reviews