Rameau: Complete solo keyboard works

Jean-Philippe Rameau
Complete solo keyboard works
Steven Devine, harpsichord
Resonus RES10214. 3CDs 79’26, 65’45, 73’28

This important recording of the solo keyboard works of Jean-Philippe Rameau brings together in a three-CD set, pieces previously only available as separate downloads from the Resonus website. For those who haven’t kept up with these recordings, or who want a hard copy of these performances, this three-for-the-price-of-one package is a must-buy. The three discs were recorded in St John the Evangelist, Oxford in December 2013 and April 2014, and in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge in August 2017. All use the same double-manual harpsichord by Ian Tucker based on a 1626 Andreas Ruckers of Antwerp, with a ravalement added in 1763 by Hemsch of Paris. The pitch is  a=415, and it is tuned in the non-specific Tempérament Ordinaire, in this context presumably meaning a modified meantone temperament. The three CDs follow a sensible order, giving an excellent overview of Rameau’s stylistic development from 1706 to 1747. Sadly, the title of ‘Complete solo keyboard works’ is correct: although he spent much of his early life as an organist, unlike many other French composers of the period, he left no compositions for the organ, although there are modern transcriptions available, in score, and on CD. 

The first CD starts with the Suite in A from the 1706 Premier Livre de Pièces de Clavecin, Rameau’s earliest known composition and an example of his early style, and the influence of Louis Marchand, Rameau’s predecessor as organist of the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris. It is followed by the two Suites (in F and G) from the 1724 Pièces de Clavessin introduce Rameau’s descriptive character pieces, the Suite in G including the gentle Les Tendres Plaintes and L’entreen Des Muses and the virtuoso Les Tourbillons and Les Cyclopes, the former representing swirls of dust thrown up by strong winds.

Disc 2 includes the two Suites from the Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin dating from around 1726/9. These demonstrate a major advance in technical and musical complexity and extend Rameau’s earlier use of character pieces. These aspects are particularly notable in such pieces as Les Trois Mains with its lively hand-crossings, the well-known Gavotte & Doubles, hiding an extensive and virtuosic variation set behind a simple title, the harmonic experimentation of L’Enharmonique and the brilliance of the surrounding pieces, L’Egypenne and Les Sauvages.

It is Disc 3 that sets this package apart from other recordings, in that it includes the complete 1735 keyboard transcriptions of the opera-ballet: Les Indes Galantes. In his excellent and comprehensive programme notes (only in English), Steven Devine discusses the arguments as to whether these were intended as stand-alone keyboard pieces or were merely some sort of short score used for rehearsals. Either way, they are fascinating examples of the transcriber’s art. Three of the pieces require a second player, in this case, Robin Bigwood. The disc ends with the Cinq Pièces of 1741, La Dauphine, and as an encore, Steven Devine’s own transcription of the Air pour Zéphire from Les Indes Galantes.

As for the playing, there are several factors that separate Steven Devine’s playing from the many competitors. These include the outstanding sensitivity of his playing, ranging from his choice of sensible speeds, mercifully slower than the speed merchants, to the delicacy of his touch and the refinement of his articulation.

The recording booklet can be found here.