Rameau Harpsichord Works
There are now several currently available recordings of Rameau's harpsichord pieces though two of the most interesting of them—by Scott Ross (Stil) and Noelle Spieth (Solstice) are still not available in the UK. Christophe Rousset in his two-CD set confines himself to the three principal collections of 1706, 1724 and c. 1728 additionally including La Dauphine (1747) and the charming but slight Les petits marteaux de M Rameau. This last-mentioned piece was until recently thought to be by Rameau's one-time pupil and champion, Balbastre. I am sorry that Rousset stopped short of giving us Rameau's own transcriptions of dances from his opera-ballet Les Indes galantes and his five transcriptions from the Pieces de clavecin en Concerts (1741); they would have required an extra disc but with playing of this order that would have been fully justified. As it is, only Olivier Baumont (Adda/Gamut, 5/90) and Kenneth Gilbert (Archiv, 3/90 and Harmonia Mundi, 4/86) have recorded virtually the entire solo harpsichord oeuvre.
It is Rousset's playing though, which impresses me more than any of his competitors in this repertory. His phrasing is graceful and clearly articulated, the inflexions gently spoken and the rhythmic pulse all that one could wish for. Tempos are, for the most part, nicely judged and the playing generally attentive to detail and refreshingly animated. My reservations over tempo concern only the Venitienne, Gavotte and Menuet of the first collection which strike my ears as being uncomfortably brisk, lacking that choreographic poise that is such a vital ingredient in French baroque music. Kenneth Gilbert and Trevor Pinnock (CRD) both provide more alluring interpretations of these pieces.
Where the remainder of the programme is concerned Rousset has struck me as being comfortably abreast of his competitors, frequently surpassing them in his intuitive understanding of dance measures and in the numerous other little insights with which he enhances the music. It is of course impossible to single out more than a handful of pieces though many more than that are deserving of special consideration. ''Les niais de Sologne'' and its variations for example are brilliantly handled. Where Baumont is rhythmically jerky and fussy in his ornamentation, Gilbert too restrained, and Ross too deliberate, Rousset is fluent, brisk and exciting. ''L'entretien des Muses'', of a very different character, is relaxed, reflective and resonant. No empty rhetoric in this elevated conversation. ''Les cyclopes'' is vividly and dramatically interpreted while losing nothing in detail; Spieth is more theatrical but less articulate, Ross slower and less interesting. William Christie (Harmonia Mundi) perhaps captures the scene best of all with his emphasis on the picturesque hammering figures evoking the one-eyed giants at work in their forge. The ingeniously illusory ''Les trois mains'' is engagingly mischievous and impressively executed, Baumont offering strong competition here, too. ''La poule'' is irresistibly brought to life—I wouldn't mind half-a-dozen eggs from this hen for they would surely be of burnished gold—and ''Les sauvages'' masterly in its light tread and animated gestures. These qualities apply equally to the exquisite ''L'enharmonique'', ''L'egyptienne'' and the splendid A minor Gavotte and variations where Rousset achieves effective contrasts with almost breathtaking virtuosity. Spieth, alone among the competitors adopts a comparably refreshing, unbuttoned and vital approach to the variations and is a match for Rousset in the great opening Allemande of the Suite.
In short, an outstanding issue which goes right to the top of the ladder. The recording is ideal as are the two instruments which Rousset has chosen. One of them, by Hemsch of Paris, dating from 1751 is said to have belonged to Rameau's patron, the fermier general La Poupliniere. There's a thought; but the Editorial Department's magnifying glass needs dusting—the fine medallion of the composer on page 7 is by Caffieri not Calfieri!'