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.

Imagine - Pieces by Bach, Performed by Jean Rondeau

Jean Rondeau

I first encountered Rondeau through YouTube. He was playing as part of a small trio ensemble, and I looked for more. The music was good; but who was this guy, with that hair?

In his first solo album (Erato Disques), he chose a popular composer and a curious collection of pieces. Instead of a partita or two, or a complete reading of one collection (say the Well-tempered clavier), Rondeau chose BWV 997 for lute (or lautenwerk, as he makes the case), BWV 1003 for violin, the chaconne from BWV 1004, the solo flute partita, BWV 1013, a movement each from BWV 1005 (violin) and BWV 1007 (cello). The centerpiece is the so-called Italian Concerto, BWV 971. Now that’s a harpsichord piece.

Rondeau’s instrument, a modern-day build, is attractive sounding; the microphone is placed close, but there’s some reverb too. The result is a little richness from an instrument some might find grating on the ears. I never have.

Rondeau feels “comfortable” with these pieces, which reminds me of a pair of jeans that fits really well. There’s no stiffness, no over-formalness. He’s also not shy about trying some things with color and ornaments. He makes use of two keyboards to vary the dynamics (with each one set up differently). He generally sticks to one steady tempo, but not without rubato. It’s used little enough to not make his performance come across as romantic or over-done; it’s used just enough, in good taste, to highlight the affect of the music, specially when it comes to big cadences or something novel in the music. In short, Rondeau has style. There’s virtuosity, too, but not to the point of him coming across as a show-off.

What’s perhaps some “show off” is the album’s cover, and the photograph of a very handsome, young harpsichordist, posed to a point of absurdity with an intense gaze with his eyes and a thicket of hair, taken one or two notches past “sexy bed head.”

The cover and styling was likely contrived to command notice, at least with more intensity than the 2012 release of “Bach” by David Fray on Virgin Classics of two partitas for piano, and the C minor Toccata, BWV 911. Unlike Fray, however, Mr. Rondeau has chosen to go off, perhaps, a typical path, choosing Bach pieces less standard for his instrument.

The lute suite makes its case easily, as the story goes, it may have not been a lute piece per se, but one written for a keyboard instrument that sounded more like a lute than a harpsichord. To my ears, it’s successful.

The pieces for solo instrument (BWV 1003, 1004, 1013, 1005, 1007) is where the real imagining comes into play, but Rondeau takes his cues in a two cases from previous re-arrangements. I am not sure all the pieces come across as keyboard pieces as Bach may have imagined a keyboard piece, but between Rondeau’s sense of taste, just enough sensitive playing, and the very palatable instrument, the pieces work. In a concert venue, I imagine them being novel encores. For me, the cello dances, two Minuets from the cello suite #5, was the most in want of something more (more harmony, a counter melody?). Curiously, the minor-versioned one comes across as the more interesting with the sustain at the start of more than one pitch.

Rondeau’s performance of Bach’s Concerto nach Italienischen Gusto, BWV 971, is good, but I’ve grown more accustomed to a faster final, third movement. Aapo Hakkinen offered a more interesting account with his 2012 release of Bach concertos with Helsinki Baroque, using an instrument with a 16’ set of strings. Andreas Staier’s version, from his recording of the Clavierübung I & II on Deustche Harmonia Mundi is all around a tad more virtuosic. While Rondeau’s version is in no hurry, it does benefit from the player’s adeptness with the right hand ornaments, his instrument’s sound, and the temperament used for tuning the instrument. The middle movement is the one I often have the most problem with, as it’s long, drawn-out melody set against a regular pattern in the bass requires the most of the three movements of being helped by the performer. It starts out normally enough, but by the end the melody seems as if it’s being sung by a rather heroic opera star. There was more that could have been done, but it’s a good start nonetheless for a solo debut album.

Recorded in June, 2014 in Paris. Harpsichord by Knif & Pelto, based on German models. Dramatic photos by Edouard Bressy.

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