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Rameau: Pièces de clavecin en concerts

Ensemble Masques, Olivier Fortin
ATMA Classique Jean-Philippe Rameau is known today most likely as a French opera composer in the late-Baroque, but his most well-known pieces to many may be his collection of pieces for the keyboard. In recent years, these pièces de clavecin have been taken up by more than one mainstream pianist, bringing Rameau's colorful dance movements out of the hands of harpsichordists, and along to the ears of enthusiasts of mainstream classical music. Historically, Rameau is among the last in the big names from the French baroque, and his writings on theory are also considered important. The pieces recorded here were written for the harpsichord and have parts written-out for instruments. They're therefore considered "consort pieces," but they are not precisely the same as, say, trio sonatas, where one instrument is a melody instrument, the right-hand of the keyboard is the second, and the left hand and a bass instrument fulfill the role of basso continuo. Incidentally for those who read music, here's the complete score of the pieces in PDF. Rameau's lines for the instruments are sometimes independent from the keyboard part; other times, they borrow bits and pieces and play in unison. What that leaves us is a fully-composed keyboard part that could be played independently (and sometimes the part is written out such that the keyboard does play alone); or the parts can be combined for the "consort" experience. The cover page indicates the instrumentation in quite loose terms, for "a flute, or violin, and a viole (da gamba) or, heck, a second violin… whatever…" Okay, I took some liberty there, but you get the idea. My original version of this collection was by Christophe Rousset, performing on a 1761 Hemsch instrument along with Ryo Terakado on violin and Kaori Uemura on viola da gamba. Their rendition lasts some 73 minutes, including the versions for solo harpsichord. The new version by Ensemble Masques is some 63 minutes in length, but skips the solo harpsichord versions. In the copy I bought from iTunes, the tracks are also mis-labeled, which makes comparing movements between various performances taxing, at best. Looking at a copy of the real CD's track listing, it seems the original was mislabeled too. So unfortunate. Screen Shot 2012 09 08 at 4 54 11 PM The same jacket lists Anne Thivierge on flute, Sophie Gent on violin, and Mélisande Corriveau playing basse de viole. The star of the ensemble, of course, is Olivier Fortin, the French-Canadian harpsichordist who has often been featured alongside Skip Sempé on harpsichord, performing together works of Scarlatti, Rameau, Bach/Vivaldi, and English music. I have to give credit to Fortin, who as a director, has injected a little whimsy into these pieces, with his choice of tempo, dramatic pauses, and interpretive license. By comparison to Rousset, Fortin and Co. are far less rigid in their performances, and instead come across as flexible, and dare I say, fun. Balance in the recording favors the violin over the other "consort" instruments, namely the viole is sometimes subdued. But the violin seems to be another star, Ms. Gent, playing strongly, giving every indication of her status as a virtuoso. The 5th track introduces the flute as one of the melody instruments, and that's, dare I say, where the real French flavor comes to descend upon us. Ms. Thiverge's flute is one of the most sensual, full-bodied, and luscious-sounding baroque flutes I've heard in some time. I think, in fact, that this delicious sound is intimately tied to the recording of the work, which is superbly done. Stereo separation and "air" around the instruments is beautifully captured, with the result coming across equally well on headphones as on speakers. It's when the speakers are used that I only wish I could give a tad bit of "umph" to the mike on the viole. In fact, both flute and violin are "louder" than the harpsichord, which is pretty true to real-life. Other than the softer-than desired gamba, it's one of the best sounding recordings I've heard in a very long time. Screen Shot 2012 09 08 at 4 30 40 PM The pieces from this collection are supposedly named after real people known to Rameau, such as La Livri, La Coulicam or La Rameau. I think the jury is still out as to if the pieces are named after these men's wives, or they name the men themselves. I'm always willing to grant that the "La" in the titles indicate not the gender of the person, but refer to the word for piece. No matter, each is a so-called character piece, and each one definitely has a flavor. Probably more so, to my ears, than the named pieces of François Couperin. Have you ever noticed in a live performance when the players are really enjoying themselves? There's typically a lot of emotional reaction to the music on faces, including smiles, and nods and glances at the other performers. You just know when it's going well for them. We can hear it too. Masques was in the "good" zone when they set this to record. Track 13 is of a very spirited nature, probably indicating well what I think of how well these players thought of their own abilities and "lock in" as a small ensemble. When the violin reaches for the high notes in the "B" section of the piece, it's high drama, with notes flying about, the harpsichord taking on the role of a percussion instrument at times. The final repeat is taken at almost double-speed. There's fun, excitement, and good humor all around. My only reservation with this release is the mis-labeling of the tracks. The last three seem rightly-labeled, but I have the new task of going back and labeling them correctly as homework. And you only need to linger on the penultimate track, La Cupis, to know that first, Rameau was a gifted composer, and second, that Masques is in very fine form in this recording. Kudos to them for taking Rameau's "loose" interpretation on what instruments to use, to heart, employing the suggested combinations of violin, flute, and gamba all in different guises.

Zelenka: Six sonatas for oboes (and violin) with basso continuo

Essay on Old Music