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Rameau Arranged for Harpsichord


Kenneth Weiss (Ben Hires photo)
Kenneth Weiss (Ben Hires photo)

Kenneth Weiss gave a solo harpsichord recital Saturday night at the First Church in Cambridge as part of the Boston Early Music Festival’s 25th-concert season. An American who has long been based in Paris, Weiss played all-Rameau, featuring keyboard arrangements of instrumental numbers from the composer’s stage works.

Solo harpsichord recitals were a regular part of Boston’s musical scene at the beginning of the second (Arnold Dolmetsch worked and played here in the early 1900s) early-music revival here in the 60s and 70s. Dutch harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt—one of Weiss’s teachers—performed here often, and I remember attending as a student not only his recitals but those by Anthony Newman, Luigi-Ferdinando Tagliavini, and my teachers John Gibbons and Martin Pearlman, among others. Over the years, however, harpsichord recitals have become rare offerings for major concert presenters like BEMF, probably reflecting a trend that seems to have led to a reduction in solo piano performances as well. Singers, as well as conductors of orchestral music, now catch more attention even from patrons of older repertory.

Weiss’s superb playing Saturday night made a case for more frequent harpsichord performances. (Disclosure: until last spring, he and I were colleagues at The Juilliard School, but like many part-time faculty at conservatories and universities we never actually saw one another there, let alone talked or compared notes.) Unfortunately, cold, rainy weather may have deterred more from attending Saturday’s performance, and the sanctuary of First Church, only about half full on this occasion, is not a good space for solo keyboard music. Front-row listeners, seated on rather uncomfortable wicker chairs, could hear well, but just a few rows back it required great concentration to follow the music, and many details were lost, particularly in quick pieces.

The lengthy notes in the program booklet did not need to defend the practice of making idiomatic keyboard arrangements of music originally composed for other media. Bach famously adapted many compositions to the keyboard, as did Rameau himself, reflecting a centuries-old French tradition of arranging favorite dances and vocal compositions for the harpsichord, often in improvisatons. What was new during Rameau’s career—from the teens of the 18th century to his death in 1764—was the precise setting out of keyboard music in notation, specifying details that had previously been left to the player. This practice extended to arrangements, which in the hands of Rameau and (probably) Marie-Rose Forqueray—likely transcriber of her husband’s compositions for viola da gamba—became a sphere of virtuoso keyboard music in its own right.

Weiss himself has contributed to this genre, last year publishing a volume of arrangements from the 1739 version of Rameau’s Dardanus, a tragédie en musique. The program opened with a complete performance of this “Suite from Dardanus,” beginning with the overture and concluding with the chaconne, traditionally the grand finale of the dance scenes that periodically interrupt the action in French musical dramas of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A similar suite from Rameau’s previous musical tragedy, the 1737 Castor et Pollux, rounded out the first half.

Rameau was perhaps the best dance composer of all time. In their original forms, the compositions on the program are remarkable for the variety of character, color, and movement that they present within the conventional types of music used for late-Baroque French dance. It would be difficult to find unidiomatic moments in Weiss’s arrangements, which faithfully preserve the character of Rameau’s originals. They reflect a lifetime of study and performance of Rameau’s music—both original keyboard pieces and stage works (which Weiss has conducted). If the test of an arrangement is that it should sound as if it was composed originally for the instrument on which it is played, Weiss’s versions passed admirably. I particularly enjoyed the First Rigaudon from Dardanus, cleverly set out as a pièce croisée played by the two hands on different keyboards of the two-manual harpsichord—a magnificent 1987 instrument by Allan Winkler based on eighteenth-century French models.

After intermission, Weiss returned to play three original harpsichord compositions from Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin of 1724, followed by the composer’s own arrangements of music from Les indes galantes, his opéra-ballet of 1735–36. Three encores, all played with aplomb, included “Les sauvages” (the original harpsichord version of a dance number later incorporated into the closing scene of Les indes) and two arrangements from Rameau’s Pygmalion by his younger contemporary Claude Balbastre.

As effective and colorful as all these arrangements may be, Rameau’s original harpsichord pieces are richer musically and more challenging for player and listener, though not always in the most obvious ways. Daringly, Weiss chose three of Rameau’s most beautiful slow compositions: “Les soupirs” (Sighs), “Les tendres plaintes” (Tender laments), and “L’entretien des muses” (The Muses’ discourse). Each requires, and received, perfect timing and execution of the dozens of expressive little figures—trills, arpeggios, and the like—that are called ornaments but which in this style are essential to the music. These three pieces were the high point of the program for this listener, more impressive than the quickest or even the most expressive of the arrangements, which after all derive from the less profound moments of their original stage works. Only here, particularly in the quietly impassioned rhetoric of the last piece, did we sense the full depth of Rameau’s creativity as well as Weiss’s complete mastery of the harpsichord and of French eighteenth-century style.

If I had to observe one problem in the evening’s performance, it was Weiss’s tendency, shared with his mentor William Christie, of (intentionally?) rushing certain lively or dramatic numbers. What may work for an audience who can see the singers or the action on stage can be less effective when one must rely on the ear alone to follow the music. It did not help that quick passages tended to be blurred by the acoustic of First Church. As a result, many exquisite details were lost, although the general effect of impetuousness was certainly communicated in such numbers as the “Ritournelle vive” from Dardanus, originally the entry of the sorcerer Isménor at the beginning of the second act. In the “Air pour Borée et la Rose” from Les indes, the alternation between breezy and wilting passages was dramatic. But the windy sections rushed by too quickly to be completely comprehensible, a violation, I think, of the aesthetic of clarity that was taken for granted by 18th-century French theorists, including Rameau (who was a prolific writer on music as well as a composer).

Arnold Dolmetsch ca. 1908
Arnold Dolmetsch ca. 1908

I wonder, too, whether more might have been conveyed to listeners if the program had been broken up into smaller segments. From the first days of the early-music revival of the 60s and 70s, suites from Rameau’s stage works have been popular repertory for recordings. But although it is easy to distinguish the tracks of an audio disc, it can be hard to follow a long series of as many as a dozen short dances in a live performance, especially when some numbers run together or are repeated after an intervening one (as in the case of several alternating minuets and the like). I fear that, as a result, a certain element of communication was missing or at least not as distinct as it would have been with clearer breaks between pieces. Not all listeners may have cared, but it does help to be sure from the outset whether one is listening to a gavotte or a minuet, rather than having to figure it out after the piece has started (and even the fundamental distinction between duple- and triple-time pieces was not always immediately apparent in the echoey ambience).

Much as I appreciated Richard Langham Smith’s extensive notes, I wish that these had stuck to the facts rather than indulging in currently fashionable notions of “musical history as a social phenomenon” or of the death of the composer. Rameau’s dates were wrongly given, and no date at all was provided for one of the three stage works. Concise plot summaries for the latter (which were described rather imprecisely as “operas”) would have been more helpful than the learned but sometimes wandering commentary

I did find illuminating Weiss’s own brief remarks about his transcriptions, which, he told us, grew out of his work as répétiteur (rehearsal keyboardist or vocal coach) with Christie’s Les Arts Florissants. This underscored the improvisatory element in any effective “translation” of orchestral music to the keyboard, which he succeeded in projecting to listeners while rendering Rameau’s music as colorfully on the harpsichord as it appears in its original orchestral guise.

David Schulenberg’s The Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was published in 2014 by the University of Rochester Press. He has also written books on the music of W. F. Bach and the keyboard music of J. S. Bach, as well as the textbook Music of the Baroque. A performer on harpsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano, he teaches at Wagner College and at The Juilliard School, both in New York City. His website is here.

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