Rameau’s compositional stages included early keyboard works, followed by operas not started until the age of 50 (!), taking a break close to age 60 in order to create the five books of Pieces de clavecin en concerts, which really refer to pieces done in ensemble as opposed to solo harpsichord. These are not Italianate at all, but inundated with a French sensibility where the harpsichord is the be-all and end-all of the proceedings, the accompanying violin and viola da gamba (or flute and second violin, which the composer provided for) ornate and involved yet still not central. This was a natural progression for the composer who had already set a number of solo harpsichord pieces according to descriptive form where the music follows its own natural path in terms of the basic dances that he uses as a foundation.
Pancrace Royer's First Book of Harpsichord Pieces demonstrates how much the harpsichord tried to change to meet the challenge of the upstart pianoforte. These works push the instrument to its technical limits, showing an astonishing variety and quality of music.Alexander Bryce
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France’s leading young harpsichordist performs works by two masters of the French Baroque. No surprises there, perhaps … but the harpsichordist in question is Jean Rondeau and the album is called Vertigo. It conceives the harpsichord in vividly theatrical terms. Vertigo takes its name from a dramatic, rhapsodic piece by Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer, who, along with Jean-Philippe Rameau, forms the focus of this album. If Rameau (1683–1764) is the better-known composer today, especially admired for such operatic masterpieces as Hippolyte et Aricie and Platée, the younger Royer (1705–1755) was also a major figure in his time, rising to become master of music at the court of Louis XV. Both Rameau and Royer excelled in keyboard music and in works for the stage. As Jean Rondeau says: “These two illustrious composers battled for the top spot at the Opéra.” He describes them as “two magicians, two master architects, amongst the most wildly imaginative and brilliant of their era … Two composers who also tried to capture echoes of grand theatre with the palette offered by their keyboard.
Composer Claude-Bénigne Balbastre came at the end of the French Baroque keyboard tradition that produced François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau. Composed in 1759, these pieces look back toward the tradition of French harpsichord music, with its individual piece titles designating various members of the French nobility and their individual personalities. Thirty years after Couperin announced the reunification of French and Italian tastes, they show only light influence of Italian style; the clearly diatonic, periodic Allegro tune of "La Laporte," track 16, is the exception. Nor does Balbastre attempt to take after the intellectual density and harmonic complexity of Rameau's keyboard music. Instead his little musical portraits have a mostly pleasant, pastoral mien, with harmonic touches that are unusual and evocative rather than difficult.
It is now some 12 years since William Christie made an excellent disc of Pancrace Royer's only published collection of harpsichord pieces (1746); and it was reissued recently on CD. Royer was a more prominent figure in French musical life than the comparative unfamiliarity of his name nowadays would suggest. He was an imaginative director of the Concert Spirituel, leader for several years of the Opéra orchestra, and a successful composer for the stage, as well. His ballet-héroIque, Zalde (1739) was especially popular and was still being performed in the 1760s. La Chasse do Zaide is the composer's own harpsichord arrangement of a "symphonie" in the opera and, in this new recital, Christophe Rousset appends it to the pieces of the 1746 publication. That, too, incidently contains a number of transcriptions by the composer of pieces from earlier stage works.
My first encounter with Rameau came when I was seven years old. The piano was predominant in musical life in the Soviet Union at the time but Johann Sebastian Bach was the only composer to represent the baroque era. Ever-present in concert halls, his compositions were also the daily bread of young pianists in music school. My first teacher had been born in Paris and had a deep knowledge and strong sense of French culture, especially French literature. Thanks to him, I in turn fell in love with France in general and Rameau in particular, and Rameau has stayed with me ever since. I have always kept him in a corner of my mind without ever being able to play his music in public, because unfortunately concert organisers, including in France, then as now prefer composers better known to the general public.