Rameau at the harpsichord equals joy

Rameau: Pièces de clavecin en concerts. Esemble Masques. Harpsichord Olivier Fortin, violin Sophie Gent, baroque transverse flute Anne Thievierge, viol Mélisande Corriveau. ATMA Classique, 2009 CD. Have a taste here.

The full title of the 1741 collection is Pièces de clavecin en concerts pour un violon ou un flute, une viole ou un second violon (Pieces for harpsichord in concert with a violin or flute, viol or second violin). They’re unusual for its time, as harpsichord does not provide basso continuo as it would in the baroque trio sonatas, but is the key part of the texture of the sound. The high dominant phrase is propelled by either the violin or the woodwind, the shade given by the bass viol, but everything else is formed by the virtuosic harpsichord tinkle, often given prolonged solo segments.

According to the liner notes (François Filiatrault in French, translated to English by Sean McCutcheon), with these curious concerts Rameau anticipated the trio for piano, violin and cello of the Classical period. “The concertants should hear each other,” Rameau instructs the performers in the preface of the collection, “and in particular the violin and the viol should adapt themselves to the harpsichord.” The lead role changes from high to keyboard back to high for the listener, and it’s quite a treat to notice the segments when the higher instrument is so obviously accompanying the significantly lower harpsichord.

There’s also a theatrical side to the pieces: Rameau named many of them after his friends, people he knew and knew of, and in some cases endeavoured to give something of the person’s character in music. “La Boucon”, the second, flute-driven melancholy movement of the Deuxième Concert, is named after Anne-Jeanne Boucon, daughter of an aristocratic family who was also a noted harpsichordist. De la Poplinière of “La La Poplinière” in the Troisième Concert was a well-known Maecenas of the era.

These are exquisite pieces, played in a vast palette of temperament and colour. The very good liner notes are the right mix of musicological and biographical information, and the cheeky cover design includes caricatures of some of the contemporaries of Rameau from across La Manche (bottom left is Edmund Burke). Olivier Fortin, the man behind the Masques harpsichord, comes to Toronto annually to teach at the Tafelmusik Summer Baroque Music Institute. Let’s hope he brings the full Masques for a performance next time.


Here’s Il Giardino Armonico performing La Forqueray, the fugue movement of the Cinquième Concert. Dedicated to Jean-Baptiste Antoine Forqueray, a renown viol player — or perhaps his second wife, the harpsichordist Marie-Rose Dubois.


7 thoughts on “Rameau at the harpsichord equals joy

  1. Isn’t it? And apparently the French fugue was considerably different to the German fugue — and think of Bach’s fugues while listening to this. On first memory, Bach’s sound less playful and more programmatic, but maybe I’m out to lunch…

    If anybody can say more about this, please jump in.

  2. I have to say that the words Fugues adjacent to jocular or gay do not spring instantly to mind ( unless, of course, you live in Montreal or Quebec ! )

    1. Gai! I think if les Canadiens can gay-ify the Fugue, our world-historical mission is completed right there.

      That’s the second item on the nation’s agenda.

      1) enshrine the right to take naps in the constitution (“peace, order and good government” is a more pompous way to phrase the Right to Nap)
      2) gayify the Fugue.

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