musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Theatrical music for keyboard(s)

[I] "Divine Noise - Theatrical Music for two Harpsichords"
Guillermo Brachetta, Menno van Delft, harpsichord
rec: May 28 - 31, 2014, Bunnik (NL), Oude Kerk
Resonus - RES10145 (© 2015) (74'26")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

François COUPERIN (1668-1733): Apothéose de Lully (La Paix du Parnasse - Sonade en trio); Gaspard LE ROUX (c1660-1707): Suite in F; Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764): Platée, ballet bouffon (suite, arr Guillermo Brachetta)

[II] Marin MARAIS: "Dans les jardins d'Eurytus"
Marie van Rhijn, harpsichord
rec: August 16 - 18, 2015, Nord-Pas de Calais
Evidence - EVCD019 (© 2015) (70'41")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Marin MARAIS (1656-1728): Alcide, tragédie en musique (arr anon, Charles Babell (1636-1716), Jean-Henry d'Anglebert (1628-1691)); Suite for viola da gamba and bc in b minor (arr Marie van Rhijn) [1]

[1] Pièces de viole, Livre II, 1701

We know little music for two keyboards from before the second half of the 18th century. Even pieces for keyboard à quatre mains are pretty rare. There are several reasons for that. Keyboard music was mostly written for amateurs and keyboards - first the harpsichord, later the fortepiano - were quite expensive. The booklet to the present disc quotes the English music journalist Charles Burney who wrote: "The inconvenience of having two harpsichords or two piano-fortes, in the same room, and the short time they remain exactly in tune together, have prevented frequent trials, and even the cultivation of this species of music, notwithstanding all the advantages which, in other respects, it offers to musical students." Guillermo Brachetta adds: "Both we and our recording engineer can well testify to this remark and confirm that the amount of time two harpsichords actually remain in tune together is shockingly brief!"

He mentions two pieces for two keyboards: A Fancy for two to play by Thomas Tomkins and A Verse for two to play by Nicholas Carlton (not Carlston as the booklet has it). There is more if we include pieces for two organs: many Italian churches of that time had two organs at the opposing sides of the choir: one on the 'epistle side', and therefore called the 'Epistle organ', and one at the 'gospel side' - the 'Gospel organ'.

There can be little doubt that music for two harpsichords was more frequently played than the lack of music specifically intended for two keyboards suggests. Improvisation and arrangement were two important features of keyboard playing in the baroque era. One could probably say that there is a kind of 'hidden repertoire' for two keyboards. It is especially interesting to read what François Couperin had to say about this. In the preface to his Apothéose de Lully he states that this piece, as well as the Apothéose de Corelli and "the complete book of trios which I hope to publish", can be played on two harpsichords. "I play them this way with my family and with my students, and it works very well, by playing the premier dessus and the bass on one harpsichord and the second dessus with the same bass in unison on the other one". The Apothéose de Lully ends with a sonade en trio in which the French and Italian styles - whose differences are the subject of this piece - are mingled. This trio sonata is played here on two harpsichords.

Another composer who specifically referred to the option of playing his harpsichord works on two keyboards was Gaspard Le Roux. Little is known about him: it is quite odd that he was called "famous music teacher" in the newspaper Mercure de France in 1696 but that his identity is not known. Most composers of his time participated in public concerts but he is never named. In the Almanac of 1705 which lists the main musicians of the time with their address, he is mentioned but no address is given. It has led the harpsichordist Iakovos Pappas, in the booklet to his recording of Le Roux's complete keyboard music (Arkadia, 1993), to suggest that the true author of these pieces was the son of Jean-Henry d'Anglebert, also because of the noticeable influence of the latter. Whether there is any truth in that is impossible to say. The Pièces de clavessin which were printed in 1705 is the only extant collection of his music. Otherwise only one air and a motet are attributed to him.

This collection includes 47 pieces; 41 of them are grouped according to key in seven suites. There is something special about this collection: every piece is printed in two versions, one for single harpsichord, and a second with two treble lines and a figured bass. Le Roux suggested three different ways of performing these alternative versions. The first is the harpsichordist singing the upper voice and providing an accompaniment from the figured bass. The second is a performance as instrumental trios, with two melody instruments and bc. The third option is to create a second harpsichord part on the basis of the second treble line and the bass. The book also includes six pieces which have an alternative version which Le Roux has specifically worked out for a second harpsichord. This is the basis for the performance of the Suite in F here. It is a nice complement to the recording by Pappas where this suite is played on a single harpsichord.

The largest part of this disc is devoted to Jean-Philippe Rameau. Although he published a couple of books with harpsichord pieces the performers have turned to one of his works for the stage: Platée, a comédie-lyrique which was first performed in 1745. Guillermo Brachetta transcribed a number of instrumental movements and three arias for two harpsichords. 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. This habit further developed in the 18th century; one of the exponents of this practice was Claude-Bénigne Balbastre. In Rameau's oeuvre the genres of opera and music for keyboard are explicitly linked. He transcribed several of his harpsichord pieces for orchestra in order to include them in his music for the stage. He also published 30 pieces from Les Indes Galantes, an opéra-ballet of 1735, on two staves, and divided into four concerts, explicitly intended to be played at the harpsichord. Fairly recently Pierre Hantaï and Skip Sempé recorded a whole disc with Symphonies à deux clavecins, taken from the theatrical output of Rameau.

Brachetta indicates that the transcription was a challenge, because of this work's grander scale, in comparison to the pieces by Couperin and Le Roux. "We decided to texturise the arrangement so its theatrical nature would become more apparent in contrast with the other works of this album, which have a more chamber music-like approach. Searching for an operatic effect and more exaggerated gestures, we added extra voices and small counterpoints here and there." This seems a sensitive approach which is in line with the spirit of the time. A too literal transcription would have been unconvincing: the result has to be a work which suggests that it was conceived for two harpsichords. That is exactly how this arrangement - a better word for what Brachetta has done - sounds. The dramatic character has been kept alive which is not only the result of Brachetta's work as an arranger but is also the result of how he and Menno van Delft - one of his former teachers - perform it. They play with theatrical flair, and that comes especially to the fore in some of the most dramatic pieces. It starts with the overture which gives some indication of what is to come. Aux langueurs d'Apollon is one of the three arias, and it is the most virtuosic aria of the opera. It is given a brilliant performance here. The ensuing Menuets dans le gout de vielle are just as good. The long chaconne receives an engaging performance. There is also some more introverted stuff, such as the air pour des fous tristes. The pieces by Couperin and Le Roux receive equally fine performances.

The second disc further attests to the wide-spread practice of playing orchestral music or chamber music for melody instruments on the harpsichord. Marin Marais is mainly known as a composer of music for his own instrument, the viola da gamba. But he also composed four tragédies-lyriques; the best-known of them is Alcyone. Alcide was his first contribution to the genre and dates from 1693. Pieces from this tragédie-lyrique were arranged for harpsichord by someone whom the title page refers to as un très habile homme, a very skillful man. That is a good description as this recording shows. The documentation in the booklet is not very precise but it seems that Marie van Rhijn has recorded the complete collection. These pieces are interspersed - in the form of entractes, according to the booklet - with transcriptions from another collection, the so-called manuscrit Babell which is preserved in the British Library. It is called after Charles Babell, a bassoonist who later settled in London where he played in the Drury Lane Theatre orchestra. His son William Babell has become famous - or notorious - for his harpsichord arrangements of pieces from vocal works by Handel. These are often extravagant and he was severely criticized for them by Charles Burney. In comparison his father's arrangements of pieces from Marais' Alcide are more modest. Also included is the Sarabande de Marais by Jean-Henry d'Anglebert who also transcribed many pieces from operas by Jean-Baptiste Lully. These were included in his Pièces de clavecin of 1689; this sarabande has come down to us in manuscript.

It is notable that the manuscript from which most pieces are taken includes references to their character, for instance by mentioning the participation of trumpets, flutes or oboes. It was a nice gesture to include the relevant lyrics from the opera in the booklet which allows the listener to notice what the harpsichord pieces are supposed to express. These transcriptions are very worthwhile. Among the highlights are the Caprice (act II, track 14), the Air pour les enchanteresses de Thessalie (act III, track 17) and the Air with the addition doucement from Act IV (track 19). Although the operatic origin of the most dramatic pieces is clearly discernible the more intimate pieces in particular give the impression that they are conceived for the harpsichord from the outset. That is also due to the fine playing by Marie van Rhijn.

She added her own transcription of the Suite in b minor from Marais' second book of pieces for the viola da gamba. This includes two beautiful sarabandes and ends with the magnificent Tombeau pour M. de Lully. Marais himself indicated that his viol music could be played on other instruments, including the harpsichord, and that he had played them on flute and violin himself. It is especially in the gigue that one notices that it was originally written for the viola da gamba but again these pieces sound very idiomatic. The Tombeau makes as much impression in a performance on harpsichord as with viola da gamba; Marie van Rhijn's interpretation is outstanding.

She plays a unique original instrument by an anonymous builder dated "diem 1679" which has never been recorded before. It has a bright sound which suits the programme on this disc very well.

Couperin's statement quoted above and discs like these - as well as the one by Hantaï and Sempé - show that a considerable part of the music written under the ancien régime can be played on one or two harpsichords, even when written for very different scorings. This considerably extends the repertoire of harpsichordists and it would be nice if they would explore this way of approaching French music from the time of Couperin and Rameau.

These discs are wonderful examples of what such undertakings could bring us.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Guillermo Brachetta
Menno van Delft
Marie van Rhijn

CD Reviews