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Harpsichord transcriptions from the French Baroque

[I] Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683 - 1764): "Symphonies à deux clavecins"
Pierre Hantaï, Skip Sempé, harpsichord
rec: July & Dec 2011, Arras, Théâtre
Mirare - MIR 164 (© 2013) (74'45")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

[in order of appearance]
Les Indes Galantes, 1735: Ouverture; Musette en rondeau; Menuets; Tambourins; Platée, 1745: Musette; Les Indes Galantes, 1735: Air pour les Polonois; Air pour les Esclaves africains; Zoroastre, 1749: Menuet en rondeau; Dardanus, 1739: Chaconne; Pièces de clavecin, 1728 & Zoroastre, 1749: Sarabande; Les Paladins, 1757: Air très gay; Les Indes Galantes, 1735: Gavotte; Air pour les Bostangis; Pigmalion, 1747: Ouverture; Hippolyte et Aricie, 1733: Menuet; Pièces de clavecin en concerts, 1741: L'Agaçante; Dardanus, 1739: Prélude; Pièces de clavecin, 1724 & Les Fêtes d'Hébé, 1737: Tambourins en rondeau; Platée, 1745: Menuets dans le goût de la vièle; Pièces de clavecin en concerts, 1741: La Pantomime; L'Indiscrète; Dardanus, 1739: Air tendre en duo; Pièces de clavecin, 1728 & Les Indes Galantes, 1735: Les Sauvages; Pièces de clavecin en concerts, 1741: La Timide; Dardanus, 1739: Tambourins; Prélude; Les Indes Galantes, 1735: Chaconne; Les Paladins, 1757: Gavotte un peu lente; Pièces de clavecin en concerts, 1741: La Marais

[II] "Rameau, Balbastre, Royer - 'Airs d'opéra accommodés pour le clavecin'"
Catherine Zimmer, harpsichord
rec: Nov 1 - 3, 2010, Lévis Saint Nom (Yvelines), Eglise Notre-Dame-de-la-Roche
L'Encelade - ECL1001 (© 2011) (76'21")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list
Score Royer

[in order of appearance]
Claude-Bénigne BALBASTRE (1724-1799): Ouverture de Pigmalion (Rameau); Air de M. Balbastre; Air de M. Mondonville; Gavotte de M. Rebel. gayement
Air de l'Echo; Air de Scarlaty (D. Scarlatti, Sonata in C, K 95); Les petits marteaux de M. Rameau
Air de l'Ouverture des Paladins. gayement (Rameau); Air de On ne s'avise jamais de tout. amoroso (Monsigny); Pantomime de Pigmalion (Marche; Rameau); Gavotte graçieuse; Menuet de Dindell; Giga. gayement (Pantomime from Pigmalion, Rameau); Menuet de M. Balbastre; Contredanse (Pigmalion, Rameau); Air de Délie de M. Ferrand fermier général (Air pour les suivants de l'Amour from Zélie); Contredanse de Platée (Prologue, Rameau)
Musette du carnaval du Parnasse (Mondonville); Gavotte de Dardanus (Rameau); Gavotte de Titon et l'Aurore (Mondonville); Aria del Signor Degiardino; Rondeau de M. Rebel; Gavotte de M. Rebel. gracieusement; Gavotte de Titon et l'Aurore (Air, Mondonville); Allemande de M. Balbastre
Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace ROYER (1705-1755): Allemande (Marche pour le sacrifice, Pouvoir de l'Amour); La Sensible; La Marche des Scythes (Airs pour les turcs en rondeau, Zaïde)

Sources: Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer, Premier Livre de pièces pour clavecin, 1746; Claude-Bénigne Balbastre, Recueil d'airs choisis de plusieurs opéras accommodés pour le clavecin, [n.d.]

One musical genre has always been and is still very popular: the arrangement or transcription of compositions for other scorings than for which they were originally intended. We know such pieces from the renaissance period when vocal items were given instrumental performances. This practice is continued in the decades around 1600 when madrigals, chansons or motets were the subject of diminutions for various instruments. Keyboard arrangements have always enjoyed great popularity: from the renaissance the Buxheimer Orgelbuch is the most famous example of a collection of vocal pieces arranged or transcribed for a keyboard instrument.

The material which is the subject of the present discs is not fundamentally different from what the Buxheimer Orgelbuch includes. The main difference is the character of the material which is arranged. The largest part of the programme on both discs is devoted to arrangements of pieces from French operas. The tradition of transcribing fragments from operas - especially instrumental movements - dates from the late 17th century, when Jean Henry d'Anglebert transcribed dances from operas by Lully for the harpsichord. This habit further developed in the 18th century and leads to the arrangements by Claude-Bénigne Balbastre which Catherine Zimmer has chosen. It seems to have been an almost exclusively French tradition. I am not aware of any transcriptions of pieces from Italian operas of the 17th or early 18th century. This is probably due to the fact that they hardly included any instrumental movements. The most famous transcriptions of pieces from Italian operas were produced in England, where especially William Babell made a name for himself with arrangements of arias and instrumental pieces from Handel's operas.

Balbastre was a virtuosic performer at the organ and the harpsichord. He used to play opera transcriptions at the organ, even in church, and once played the overture from Rameau's opera Pigmalion at the harpsichord at the castle of Alexandre Jean Joseph Le Riche de La Pouplinière, Rameau's patron. That was no coincidence. Balbastre and Rameau knew each other very well: they were both from Dijon, and the two families were musically connected. Balbastre received organ lessons from Claude, Jean-Philippe's younger brother and then succeeded him as organist of Saint Etienne in Dijon. Balbastre was a great admirer of Rameau: Charles Burney reports that he had included him in the painting at the inside of the lid of his harpsichord. It was Rameau who introduced Balbastre in the music circles in Paris. He also gave him transcriptions of some of his works.

That is not surprising: Rameau himself indicated that music from his operas could be performed at the harpsichord. He even published 30 pieces from Les Indes Galantes on two staves, and divided into four concerts, explicitly intended to be played at the harpsichord. In Rameau's case the connection between opera and keyboard music is close anyway: he started his career as an opera composer rather late and at that time he had already written and published a considerable corpus of keyboard music. Various pieces from these collections later turned up as instrumental movements in his operas.

Rameau soon developed into the most important opera composers of his time. This is another explanation that his music was the subject of arrangements. It is not just music from his operas which was played at the harpsichord. Some of his music was explicitly intended for either harpsichord solo or for keyboard with additional instruments. That goes especially for the well-known Pièces de clavecin en concerts. Pierre Hantaï and Skip Sempé have included various movements from this collection in their programme. They also have selected pieces from various operas, Les Indes Galantes and several others. In the latter case they have made transcriptions of their own according to Rameau's own models. The difference with Catherine Zimmer's disc is that Hantaï and Sempé have opted for performances on two harpsichords. In his liner-notes Dennis Collins mentions various examples of pieces which are suggested by composers to be performed at two harpsichords. In other cases the music itself strongly suggests the use of two keyboards.

The way the music is divided over the two harpsichords is different. "When they are not playing in trio texture, the two harpsichords may also engage in dialogue (...), play turn about (...), play with one as 'soloist' accompanied by a 'basso continuo' on the other (...), or even play in unison (...), producing a reinforced 'plein jeu' effect, or indeed transform a succession of chords into a veritable unmeasured prelude (...)". Obviously the effect of this whole approach is heavily dependent on the creativity of the performers. There is no lack of that here. The performances are very engaging, and in addition to the gorgeous sound of the two harpsichords, one is time and again struck by the way the music - which lovers of Rameau's music will easily recognize - is realized here. I usually listen to music through headphones, and it this case this adds something as one can hear the various forms of interplay between the two harpsichords through the two channels. The recording is such that the split between the channels is not too strict.

Catherine Zimmer plays a selection from the Airs d'opéra accomodés pour le clavecin by Balbastre. The collection has more to offer than the title suggests. "There are forty arias by French composers and two compositions by Italian composers, and other music pieces including a trio and a sonata copied by another hand". One of the Italian pieces is the Air de Scarlaty, actually the Sonata in C (K 95) by Domenico Scarlatti. The other one is the Aria del Signor Degiardino, probably referring to Felice (de) Giardini, an Italian composer of French descent.

The titles sometimes differ from the originals; in the tracklist one finds the original titles between brackets. Balbastre not only transcribed pieces by Rameau, but also by other composers. Some of them are hardly known. That goes especially for Joseph-Hyacinthe Ferrand, a cousin of Madame de Pompadour, one of Louis XV's mistresses. I couldn't find anything substantial about his compositional activities; he has no entry in New Grove. Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny (1729-1817) was a French composer of mostly comic operas. The identity of the composer referred to as 'Dindell' seems impossible to track down.

The addition of three pieces by Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer makes much sense. He was a prominent composer of operas; several of them have been lost. He has became mainly known for his Premier Livre de pièces pour clavecin which was printed in 1746. Several of these are his own transcriptions of pieces from his opera Zaïde and from Le pouvoir de l'amour, a ballet héroïque. His style is just as spectacular and extraverted as Balbastre's.

Whether one appreciates this kind of repertoire is a matter of taste. If one listens to Balbastre's transcriptions and especially his own compositions, for instance the Allemande de M. Balbastre, one can easily imagine that some consider him as a representative of a period of decline in the history of the French harpsichord school. Musically speaking the disc by Hantaï and Sempé is the most satisfying and enjoyable. Historically Catherine Zimmer's disc is highly interesting and intriguing. She doesn't show any restraint in her interpretation, and that is absolutely right. Only this way the true character of Balbastre's transcriptions and original compositions is revealed.

Lovers of French harpsichord music won't like to miss either of them. Admirers of Rameau's music will certainly be especially interested by these two releases.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

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