The enthusiasm of Eve Risser for the harpsichord – “the most fun instrument to write for” – is perhaps not surprising: for all its associations with Baroque music, the plucked strings’ clarity and range of tone colours make it an attractively novel vehicle for new music, and it suits very well the improvisatory elements that arise from Risser’s jazz background.
Furakèla (West African for “caregivers” and used here a nonchalant title) explores the harpsichord’s less conventional capabilities from the very beginning, single notes (and long silences) so high-pitched they sound more like ringing glassware. These gradually develop in complexity before the piece moves into a faster, lower-pitched, jazzy kind of toccata which – where the opening was tentative – seems obsessive over rhythms, melodic fragments and specific notes. Much of the piece was improvised by Jean Rondeau (also young and French), Risser apparently providing only guidance, and at this faster section’s boiling climax one wonders who – composer or performer – had the idea of Rondeau seemingly collapsing on to the keyboard and remaining there, silent, immobile, for a little longer than some in the audience found comfortable. Dead? Or just exhausted? Of course he returned to life, with a mysterious, disjointed section before the pace picked up again, this time also allowing a more cheerful, more tonal motif to emerge. The conclusion echoed the beginning a little, but it felt upbeat, doubts and dramas now safely passed.
Earlier Rondeau showed his mastery of more superficially genteel fare, ornately rhapsodic in Rameau’s ‘Prelude’ (partly-improvised by Rondeau), virtuosic in his ‘Gavotte avec les doubles’, affecting in Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer’s ‘La sensible’ and furious in ‘Marche des Scythes’. Especially impressive was Rondeau’s integration of ornamentation into the longer line, more than mere embellishment. The only misjudgement was the pairing of the two Couperin pieces, a little samey in mood – for all that the ‘Sarabande’, especially, was richly expressive.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms