I love music.

I write about the music I like and have purchased for the benefit of better understanding it and sharing my preferences with others.

Rameau for Due Clavecins

Rameau is known to have taken-up the writing of entertainment music late in life; this music for the stage, either for opera or ballet, hasn't always enjoyed the success of Jean-Philippe's music for the keyboard in modern times. As the liner notes of this new release tell us, Rameau himself published some of this instrumental music sans recitatives for fans. It might have been a way for him to share his music with the masses, in advance of the ability to make and sell recordings. The scores, however, were published as keyboard music. To fill the texture, the music was published in two staves. And so begins another Sempé and Hantaï collaboration with two harpsichords. Hantaï and Sempé spill some ink in establishing the historical precedent for their choice in dual harpsichord realization of Rameau's entertainment music. It's interesting, I think, but certainly not necessary. But to wit, they tell us that: * Rameau published dual-keyboard versions to fans of his music, for at least one work, * Other composers wrote dual-harpsichord pieces, * other composes have left instructions on how to perform works with more than one instrument to a part, and reasons for doing so. What this is not, strictly speaking, is some new-found edition of Rameau's theater music for two keyboards. This music is, for better or worse, an arrangement by Hantaï and Sempé, or Sempé and Hantaï. You can, in fact, get a great taste for this recording from the genesis of the project, which has been preserved on YouTube. Just skip ahead about 10 minutes into the recording if you're wondering why there's no music. Sempé has been at the forefront of playing duets on two harpsichords. John Holloway performed in a similar role when his former wife and Lars-Ulrik Mortensen joined forces on organ and harpsichord, respectively, for continuo against Holloway's violin. It worked, and it was different than the use of a claviorganum (combination of harpsichord and organ) playing the same notes. Now, two performers had to realize one bass line in congruent, yet sympathetic ways. Sempé has appeared along with French Canadian harpsichordist Olivier Fortin on multiple occasions, and in a CD of English virginal music, alongside both Fortin and Hantaï. It's this experience that helps inform the technique, I believe. For the duo here have models from which to follow, but also theoretical writings, not to mention their own arrangements. In each of these previous projects, the results are largely successful. I should note that it likely takes a lot of similar thinking between the two individuals to carry this off successfully, not to mention practice. I should say here that I first became conversant with Rameau's music through another harpsichordist, whom I admire, by the name of Christophe Rousset and his L'Oiseau-Lyre recording of the solo harpsichord music in the 1990s. Much more recently, Sempé and Fortin joined forces on the Paradizo label, recording Rameau's keyboard music in duo. It upped the anté, for sure, making the results all the more flamboyant and festive. I won't go as far to say that the duet version was wholesale better. But pieces such as La Pantomime, which also appears on this disc with Hantaï, work especially well. I prefer the sound quality in the 2006 Paradizo recording with Fortin. But luckily, this duo still have a good recording on their hands despite my preference for the earlier recording. The clear stereo separation in this recording between instruments helps us appreciate the richness of the sound. And yes, in some cases, the four hands involved rival the aesthetic of a full orchestra (or single keyboard). That probably has as much to do with two master clavenistes as it does the capability of the harpsichords. But as first observed on Sempé's reading of Bach Vivaldi transcriptions with two harpsichords, the richness of multiple hands going full-tilt with lots of fast notes is as close a thing I can think of to re-create in sound the shimmer of gold. Let's not forget Bach must have liked the sound, too; he wrote dual harpsichord concertos, not to mention a 3-keyboard concerto and a 4-keyboard concerto, too. Add-in the fact that these Bach concerti were arrangements only leads further support for this new recording realizing Rameau's work on two very capable instruments. I should note that not all the pieces here are from "entertainments." Also included are pieces from Rameau's pieces de clavecin and pieces de clavecin en concerts. 75 minutes total fill the CD, with an ample selection to show-off the "color" of Rameau the composer. And I'm not sure, but I think these pieces are my favorites, likely because they are already so familiar. With two instruments playing together, the opportunity for improvisation through ornamentation and fuller voicings is almost always present. The final track, La Marais, sparkles in a twinkling kind of way, and I can hear the gamba and flute where now there is only one color. I felt they played things a little straight here, but the arrangement works. This was originally one of Rameau's consort pieces for a treble and bass instrument to accompany the keyboard. In track 27, we get a Chaconne from Les Indes Galantes. This is less successful, I felt, as a piece that simply stands on its own. It certainly helps if you know the original orchestral version, then it works. Track 25 features the Tambourins from Dardanus, and this arrangement for me is stronger; the back-and-forth voicings are both fun and interesting. Track 23 is a favorite of mine from Rameau's collection of solo works, Les Sauvages which also was re-used later in his entertainment music. With extra octave doublings and fuller chord voicings, the piece really shines. There's only one complaint, by the half-way point, it feels like it's dragging just a bit. The same success is found in track 18, from the Tambourins en rondeau. It's a lot of harpsichord; the texture is thick. I like it a lot. Track 14 features the Ouverture from Pigmalion. I compared this to the 1997 release by Rousset and Talens Lyriques. I wouldn't say this is Rameau's best work; the piece definitely works with it's orchestration shifts between full ensemble and woodwinds. Rousset's tempo is brisker than the one chosen by Hantaï and Sempé. This is an example where the two-keyboard version works, but some of the original can't simply be translated into keyboards alone. The faster section is well-played by Sempé and Hantaï, but I think perhaps the music almost needs more re-writing to fit the two-keyboard context. The sections that feature repeated chords might have benefitted from some wild runs. Track 11 from Les Paladins works better as a short dance number, as did track 25. The Musette from Platée is less successful, given its slow tempo. The technique employed, to alternate phrases with an octave-higher reading on the second harpsichord, is but one of the tricks up the duo's sleeves. It can't help save, however, what's otherwise a timid piece of music. In the end, I think there's a real context for dual harpsichord playing that's already been clearly established by Sempé and his colleagues. He's already proven it works with Rameau's keyboard and consort music, and some of those jewels are included here. The project's ambitious goal, however, was to re-invent Rameau's other ouevre, from his stage entertainment. There are really successful examples, such as Track 7's Air pour les Escalves Africians. The treatment is less successful for other selections, especially those with slower tempi. We'll never know what Rameau or his contemporaries might have done, as solutions to this re-arrangement, or how they might have reacted to Sempé's and Hantaï's efforts. To my ears, some of the tracks would have benefitted from some more liberties of re-writing on top of Rameau's bass lines. However, at what point do the pieces become the performers'? And is an established pedigree (as composer) required to pull this off, ala Vivaldi arr. by Bach? I can fully understand this duo's desire to read from original sources and to interpret the music off the page, rather than wholesale re-arrange the works. This was, after all, Rameau's own intent with his publication of two-stave renditions of his theater music. Despite some of my reservations, it's the warm sound of the Sarabande from Zoroastre (track 10) that rewards the listener, or perhaps the connoisseur, who already admires Rameau's works. I believe that if you've previously enjoyed the dual-keyboard releases by Sempé that this new release on Mirare offers something new in his collaboration with Pierre Hantaï. And if you are a fan of Rameau, then why not take advantage of this new take on his music? Certainly for me, there were new melodies to discover in this duo's selection of entertainment music.

Prelude and Fugue in B minor by Johann Sebastian Bach

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