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Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683 - 1764): Harpsichord Works

[I] "The Complete Harpsichord Works"
Jory Vinikour, harpsichorda
rec: Nov 29 - Dec 2, 2011, Boyce, VA, Sono Luminus
Sono Luminus - DSL 92154 (2 CDs) (© 2012) (2.36'45")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

[II] "Pièces de Clavecin"
Arthur Haas, harpsichordb
rec: [n.d., n.p.]
Plectra - PL 21301 (2 CDs) (© 2013) (2.33'07")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list


La Dauphine (1747)ab Les petits marteaux de M. Rameau (attr)ab; Menuet en rondeau (1724)ab; Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin, c1726-28ab; Pièces de Clavecin, 1706ab; Pièces de Clavecin en Concert (transcriptions for harpsichord solo)a Pièces de Clavessin, 1724ab; Pigmalion (overture, arr Claude-Bénigne Balbastre, 1724-1799))a

The career of Jean-Philippe Rameau can be divided into two phases. In the first he was mainly active as an organist, in the second which began in 1733, he devoted most of his time to composing and performing operas.

He was born in Dijon where his father worked as an organist; he was also his first teacher. In his formative years Rameau went to Italy but didn't stay there for long. After his return he worked mainly in the French provinces. In various cities he played the organ and in 1709 succeeded his father in Dijon. In 1722 he moved to Paris and then became a well-known figure in musical life. That same year he published his treatise Traité de l'harmonie. This was followed in 1728 by Nouveau système de musique théorique. It brought him a reputation not only in France, but also abroad. However, his fame was not enough to secure him a position as organist of one of the main churches in Paris. He rather played at some of the minor churches, and in 1727 took a position as organist in Lille. It was with his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, that he established himself as a major force in the operatic field.

The first phase of his career also saw the publication of three collections of pieces for harpsichord. The Premier Livre was printed in 1706 and is traditional in that it includes a prélude non mesuré, followed by a series of dances. Only one piece could be considered a character piece, La Vénitienne. The next two collections, printed in 1724 and between 1726 and 1728 respectively, are different. Each of them is divided into two suites: one with dances, but not preceded by a prélude, and a second with character pieces. Some of the latter are quite dramatic and bear witness to the connection between Rameau as a composer of harpsichord music and Rameau the opera composer.

At the end of the 17th century Jean-Henry d'Anglebert was the first who arranged pieces from operas - in this case Lully's - for harpsichord. Rameau followed in his footsteps, but in the opposite direction: several of his keyboard pieces were later included in his operas. Les tendres plaintes, for instance, which opens the Suite in D from the 1724 book, appears as an air tendre in Zoroastre (1749). The first menuet from the Nouvelles Suites turns up in Castor et Pollux (1737), and Les Sauvages from the same book is included in Les Indes Galantes (1735). In the latter case the piece is considerably extended. Apart from that Rameau depicted characters from the theatre, such as Les Cyclopes. From this one may conclude that Rameau was a theatrical composer by nature from early on. He was just waiting for a chance to present himself as an opera composer. Some pieces are also used to demonstrate a specific playing technique, such as Les trois mains and L'Enharmonique (1726/28).

The recording by Jory Vinikour claims to present the complete harpsichord music by Rameau. Arthur Haas' recording doesn't specifically do the same, but there is no indication in his liner-notes that there is more. In fact, both recordings are, strictly speaking, not complete. In 1741 Rameau published his Pièces de clavecin en concert which could be played either with harpsichord alone or with the addition of a violin or flute and a viola da gamba. Vinikour plays Rameau's own transcriptions of five movements from this set. The composer indicated that these particular pieces could cause problems for a performance with harpsichord alone. However, strictly speaking a recording without the complete set of Pièces de clavecin en concert can't claim to be complete. A recording of these pieces is available in a performance by Noëlle Spieth (Eloquentia, 2009). That is not all: Rameau published 30 pieces from Les Indes Galantes on two staves, and divided into four concerts, explicitly intended to be played at the harpsichord. This is not mentioned in either of the booklets.

Arthur Haas could not have included the five pieces from the Pièces de clavecin en concert because of a lack of space. In the first two books the tempi of Vinikour and Haas don't greatly differ. The latter adds a double to the menuet from 1706. It is in particular in the character pieces that Vinikour's tempi are generally a little faster. There are larger differences in the collection of 1726/28. Vinikour's playing has more dramatic flair, and it seems that Haas takes more freedom in regard to tempo. Vinikour writes that Rameau, in the preface of the latest collection, states that most pieces tend to be rather more quick than slow. There are some exceptions, but La Poule is not one of them. Vinikour needs 4:26, Haas 7:21. The latter makes an interesting attempt to depict the movements of the hens, with some differentiation in tempo, but it is questionable whether that was Rameau's intention. It takes too long and as a result becomes a little boring. Musically speaking it is not the most interesting piece anyway.

I have enjoyed both discs, but Vinikour is the more theatrical, and in the 1726/28 pieces I prefer his approach. Haas is at his best in the more quiet and introspective pieces. His recording has the advantage of two splendid original harpsichords, a Ioannes Ruckers of 1627 and a Nicolas Dumont of 1707. Vinikour plays a copy of the latter. It is probably due to the recording or his playing that its sound is a little more aggressive than that of the original. It is certainly right to change manuals now and then, for instance for the performance of a repeat. However, I think that Vinikour exaggerates: he changes the registration too often.

Considering the various aspects of these recordings there are strong arguments in favour of both.

The titles of the movements in tracks 5 to 9 of the first disc of Vinikour's recording have been jumbled. This is the correct order: sarabande I/II, gavotte, menuet, La Vénitienne, gigue.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Jory Vinikour

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