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Rameau: Pièces de Clavecin en Concerts

Trevor Pinnock, harpsichord, Rachel Podger, violin, Jonathan Manson, viola da gamba

rec: May 2002, Forde Abbey, Somerset
Channel Classics - CCS SA 19002 (66'51")

1er Concert in c minor; 2e Concert in G; 3e Concert in A; 4e Concert in B flat; 5e Concert in d minor

When Jean-Philippe Rameau published his Pièces de Clavecin en Concert in 1741 he already had firmly established himself as an opera composer, but he had hardly produced anything in the genre of chamber music. With the publication of 1741 he - as Rameau himself wrote - took direct advantage of the popularity of recently published music for harpsichord and violin, probably a reference to the sonatas opus 3 by Mondonville. It was not the first time, though, that he wrote works for harpsichord and melody instrument. In the preface to his Pièces de clavessin of 1724 he suggested the use of the viola da gamba in some pieces. In his Pièces de clavecin en concert, though, he goes one step further, by adding two melody instruments to the harpsichord, even though he stated that these pieces could be played by the harpsichord alone. The term 'concert' has nothing to do with the solo concerto; it merely means that these pieces can be played in 'ensemble'. Although the keyboard is taking the lead, the violin and the viola da gamba are equals: the viola da gamba doesn't just play the bass line of the keyboard part as Johann Sebastian Bach suggested for his sonatas for harpsichord and violin. The part of the harpsichord is certainly the most demanding, but a lot is demanded of the violin and viola da gamba as well.
All the pieces in these concerts have names, in the tradition of French keyboard music. It is tempting to look for a 'programme' or 'characterisation' of some people, as a number of names refer to musicians of Rameau's time. But that would probably go too far. But it could be an interesting game to try to discover what the composer probably would try to express.

There is no lack of recordings of these pieces. I don't know them all, but so far my favourite recording was the one by the Trio Sonnerie (Virgin Classics), with Mitzi Meyerson, Monica Huggett and Sarah Cunningham. Having heard this new interpretation I have to stick to that one. In fact, I am very disappointed by this new recording. I find it extremely bland and often simply dull. There is very little differentiation in Trevor Pinnock's harpsichord playing; no agogics, no breathing spaces or shades in tempo - he just goes on and on like a machine. Rachel Podger's violin playing isn't very colourful, in particular in comparison with Monica Huggett. And Sarah Cunningham is both more refined and dramatic in the viola da gamba part than Jonathan Manson.
This performance does neither breathe nor speak, doesn't give and take and ignores the 'punctuation marks' in the music. I am also surprised by the extremely sparing use of ornamentation. As far as the sound of the recording is concerned, it is almost muted and lacks brilliance. The balance between the instruments isn't ideal either.
This recording does sound 'heavy' and lacks elegance and French esprit. I can't recommend it. The Trio Sonnerie remains the first choice.

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

Relevant links:

Jean-Philippe Rameau
Trevor Pinnock
Rachel Podger
Jonathan Manson
Channel Classics

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