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Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683 - 1764): Pièces de clavecin en concerts

[I] "Pièces de clavecin en concerts"
rec: July 20 - 22, 2015, Antwerp, AMUZ
Et'cetera - KTC 1523 (© 2015) (66'30")
Liner-notes: E/F/D
Cover & track-list

Korneel Bernolet, harpsichord; Sien Huybrechts, transverse flute; Annelies Decock, violin; Mathilde Vialle, viola da gamba

[II] "Pièces de clavecin en concerts"
Il Gardellino
rec: Jan 2014, Antwerp, AMUZ
Passacaille - 1005 (© 2015) (64'11")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sungyun Cho, harpsichord; Jan De Winne, transverse flute; Ryo Terakado, violin; Kaori Uemura, viola da gamba

1er Concert in c minor; 2e Concert in G; 3e Concert in A; 4e Concert in B flat; 5e Concert in d minor; Les Indes Galantes (ouverture; ritournelle du Turc généreux; ritournelle des Incas du Perou; chaconne) (arr K. Bernolet) (I)


Before turning to these two recordings of Rameau's Pièces de clavecin en concerts I have to make a critical comment. These pieces are frequently performed and very well represented in the CD catalogue. At the moment of writing this review ArkivMusic lists five recordings of the complete set, and the two to be reviewed here are not yet included. But there are certainly more. From that perspective there is every reason to question whether more recordings of this oeuvre should be released, especially considering that there is much French chamber music from the same time which is available in very few recordings or not at all.

Rameau published the Pièces de clavecin en concerts in 1741, inspired by the Pièces de clavecin en sonatas op. 3 by Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville, published in 1734. These were the very first sonatas for an obbligato harpsichord and a melody instrument in France. Rameau's Pièces de clavecin en concerts can be performed in various scorings: either as pieces for harpsichord solo or on the harpsichord and various combinations of melody instruments: transverse flute or violin and viola da gamba or a second violin. Il Gardellino and Apotheosis have made the same choices: the upper part is shared between transverse flute and violin, playing in alternation or colla parte. Apotheosis is slightly different in that in one movement, La Livri from the 1er Concert, Korneel Bernolet mixes the version for harpsichord solo with the ensemble version. Another difference is their use of a piccolo in the tambourins from the 3e Concert, something for which I can't see any reason.

There are more similarities between these recordings. Both Jan De Winne and Korneel Bernolet, in their respective liner-notes, emphasize the leading role of the harpsichord. De Winne states: "Typically for this kind of chamber music, the harpsichord is the real solo instrument, while the melodic instruments are reduced to a mode of accompaniment and forced into the background (...)." And Bernolet writes: "In this recording we have endeavoured to make the harpsichord the equal partner of the flute, violin and gamba, as if these instruments were seated around the harpsichord instead of in front of it." Listening to these discs I wonder whether the harpsichord is given enough prominence. "Apart from the precise instructions in the foreword, where the words doux and très doux (softly and very softly) stand out, there are further subtle indications in the score, the most aggressive of which is un peu fort, a little loud", De Winne writes. It seems to me that both recordings include episodes which are a bit more than a little loud.

Another similarity between the two performances is the pitch: a=415 Hz. According to De Winne most extant French flutes from the period 1735 to 1760 have a pitch which is closer to a=415 Hz than to 392 Hz; the latter is the pitch most commonly adopted for French music of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. He also mentions that in the early 18th century a distinction was made between the low ton de l'opéra (392) and the higher ton de Chapelle. An example of the latter is the organ at Versailles, completed in 1711, whose pitch is a=408 Hz. It is certainly not the first time the pitch of a=415 Hz has been chosen. It was also used by, for instance, London Baroque (BIS, 2002).

A large number of the movements have titles which refer to either natural phenomena or people in Rameau's environment. It is not always possible to identify them with absolute certaintly, and that explains why Bernolet and De Winne sometimes give different interpretations of these names. It probably doesn't matter that much as it is generally assumed these titles are not meant as exact descriptions of certain personalities.

I have generally enjoyed both performances. In Il Gardellino's performance several movements take a little more time but that is not so much due to a slower tempo but seems the result of a different treatment of the repeats. An example is La Laborde which opens the 2e Concert: Il Gardellino takes 5'16" to Apotheosis 3'58" but the former's tempo is in fact slightly faster than the latter's. In that recording the harpsichord is probably a little more pronounced than in Il Gardellino's but on the other hand Bernolet is sometimes trying to do a little too much. I can't see any reason for the frequent use of the buff stop in the 4e Concert. And the mixture of two versions as mentioned above (La Livri) is not such a good idea.

In comparison Il Gardellino has come up with a fine and overall good and balanced performance. The instruments blend well and I personally prefer the tone Ryo Terakado produces to Annelies Decock's. The harpsichord could have had more presence and Sungyun Cho's playing a stronger profile but all in all I am quite satisfied with this recording. Apotheosis has something additional to offer. Korneel Bernolet transcribed some dances from the opera Les Indes Galantes. That is quite interesting and in line with a common practice at the time. But three of the Concerts open with such a transcription. That was not such a good idea as they are quite different from the fixed movements of these concerts, not the least because of a different scoring as these are for melody instruments and basso continuo. The disc closes with the chaconne from this opera. It is a fine piece but I am not so enthusiastic about the dominant role of the piccolo in this piece.

These two recordings are no immediate competitors as there are many more recordings to choose from. But if I had to choose between these two I probably would go for Il Gardellino as on the long term it seems to me the most satisfying of the two.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Il Gardellino

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