United Kingdom Proms Chamber Music 2 – Rameau, F. Couperin, Royer, Risser: Jean Rondeau (harpsichord) Cadogan Hall, London, 23.7.2018. (CC)
Rameau – Pièces de Clavecin, Book 1 (1706): Prelude in A minor; Pièces de Clavecin, Book 3 (1728): Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gavotte avec les Doubles de la Gavotte
François Couperin – Pièces de Clavecin, Book 1 (1713): Sarabande, ‘La Lugubre’; Chaconne, ‘La Favorite’
J.-N.-P. Royer – Pièces de Clavecin, Book 1 (1746): La Sensible; La marche des Scythes
Eve Risser – Furakèla (2018) World Premiere, BBC Commission
Jean Rondeau (a singularly appropriate surname given his repertoire) is hardly your everyday harpsichordist. He wears casual clothes, and his whole demeanour is laid back/cool. Yet the second he touches the instrument, he wraps us in the spirit of the early-to-mid eighteenth century. Until, that is, he improvises as part of the generating process, creating Eve Risser’s piece; then, harpsichord meets jazz and the entire script is rewritten. Not your average lunchtime recital, then.
Rondeau’s triumph was to make us realise that the works by the earlier composers are just as relevant as the one with the ink still wet. Improvisation is also involved in the Prelude in A minor from the first book of Pièces de Clavecin, which unfolded beautifully. Rondeau’s way with the rich chords of the Allemande or the exploratory Courante was only topped by the Sarabande, replete with ornaments but, for once, sounding just the right amount of decoration as a result of Rondeau’s supreme attunement to this music. Registral contrasts between the harpsichords keyboards were magically drawn in the Gavotte.
The two François Couperin character pieces were both rather lachrymose, but beautifully shaded. The revelation of the concert, even including the Risser premiere, was actually the two pieces by Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer (c1705-55), from whom only one book of Pièces de Clavecin survives. But what a book it is, on this evidence. Quirky, almost celestial in ‘La sensible’, the music exploded in ‘La marche des Scythes’, an arrangement by Royer of a movement from his own ballet Zaïde; zany and unbuttoned. Bits even felt remarkably modern, which brings us to …
Eve Risser (born 1982) is one of eight female composers who have been commissioned by the BBC to provide new works in celebration of the centenary of women in the UK gaining the right to vote. According to Risser, Rondeau plays ‘like a shaman’. Improvisation plays a prime role in this piece, which then becomes a collaborative effort between composer and performer, with Risser providing the map if not always the directions. As she says, ‘The details are less important than the goal’. The title is a West African word for ‘caregivers’, and she thinks Jean Rondeau ‘is able to take good care of people through his playing.’ While that statement might sound a little forced, the piece itself was fascinating, with silence a major component, not to mention Rondeau’s bodily stillness at various points, including when clusters resonated. Passages that emerged as fairground mirror distortions of gestures from the French Baroque gave a sort of disturbed cogency to the entire concert.
Stimulating and exciting, Rondeau proves that this music can sound as vital today as it did when penned. He has recorded several discs for Erato, each as mouth-watering as the other. This was his Proms debut; one hopes fervently for a speedy return.