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

[I] "Pièces de Clavecin en Concerts"
Les Timbres
rec: Nov 2013, Beaufays
Flora - FLORA3113 (69'34")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Julien Wolfs, harpsichord; Yoko Kawakubo, violin; Myriam Rignol, viola da gamba

[II] "The Golden Viola da gamba"
Ensemble Fleury
rec: March 19 - 22, 2013, Berlin-Dahlem, Jesus-Christus-Kirche
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88883702572 (© 2013) (62'09")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Karl Kaiser, transverse flute; Ulla Bundies, violin; Heidi Gröger, viola da gamba; Wiebke Weidanz, harpsichord

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


The Pièces de clavecin en concerts are some of the most frequently-performed chamber music works from the French baroque. Many recordings are available and the commemoration of Rameau's death in 2014 resulted in various new recordings of these pieces.

Rameau published them in 1741 under the impression of 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: as pieces for harpsichord solo and with harpsichord and various combinations of melody instruments: transverse flute or violin and viola da gamba or a second violin. The two recordings which are the subject of this review are different in this respect. The ensemble Les Timbres plays them with harpsichord, violin and viola da gamba, probably the most frequently-chosen scoring. The Ensemble Fleury, on the other hand, includes the transverse flute. It plays in alternation with the violin in the first three concerts: one movement is played with violin, another with flute. The two instruments could also have played colla parte, but this option has apparently not been considered. The last two concerts are divided among the two instruments: the fourth is performed on violin, the fifth on flute.

These five concerts comprise three movements, except the second which has four. All but two movements are character pieces as we know them from the collections of harpsichord music which were published since the early 18th century. The 2e Concert ends with a pair of menuets, the 3e Concert with a pair of tambourins. Some titles refer to people in Rameau's social environment: the 3e Concert opens with La La Pouplinière, referring to the man who for many years acted as the composer's maecenas. The 5e Concert includes two movements referring to two of the most famous performers/composers of the French baroque: Forqueray - probably the famous gambist Antoine or his son Jean-Baptiste (or possibly another member of that family) - and (Marin) Marais.

These recordings offer clear alternatives as far as the scoring is concerned. However, there is a striking similarity between them. The gambists use the same instrument, the copy of a remarkable viola da gamba which is preserved at the Musée de la Musique in Paris. It was built in 1759 or 1769 by Benoist Fleury, and is the latest viola da gamba ever built in France before the instrument's revival in modern times. It is unique in that it has eight strings instead of the customary seven. It is not explicitly mentioned in the booklet, but from what is written I conclude that this instrument is not in playable condition. This explains the speculation about the exact function of the eighth string. Tilman Muthesius, who measured and copied the instrument believes that it was the maker's intention to expand the upper register by a fourth, as he writes in the booklet of the Flora disc. This helps to perform the viola da gamba part in the Pièces de clavecin en concerts as they require an unusually wide range. This is all very nice and interesting, but we probably should not make too much of it. There is no reason to believe that Rameau had a special kind of instrument in mind like the one played here. Moreover, in previous recordings interpreters were perfectly able to perform these parts on the 'conventional' viola da gamba. For the listener it is hardly relevant: I doubt if anyone is able to note a real difference with other performances.

I have enjoyed both recordings. In some cases the Ensemble Fleury takes the tempi a little faster, but that is hardly a decisive difference between them. Les Timbres has a good feeling for the theatrical character of these concerts, and because of that I slightly prefer their performance. In the 3e Concert the second movement, La Timide, is not timid enough in Ensemble Fleury's performance; Les Timbres is just right here. In the last movement, the pair of tambourins, I also prefer them: the tempo of the first tambourin is a little faster, and there are stronger dynamic accents. In L'indiscrète, the second movement from the 4e Concert, they treat the tempo more differently, in the interest of expression. On the whole the performances of Les Timbres have a stronger profile. The use of a flute as an alternative to the violin is a good argument in favour of the Ensemble Fleury. In both recordings I probably would have liked the balance being more in favour of the harpsichord. After all that instrument has the lead here.

That said, you can hardly go wrong with either of these discs.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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