PCM1: Les Arts Florissants – Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin en concerts

Pièces de clavecin en concerts

Members of Les Arts Florissants [Florence Malgoire (violin), Emmanuel Balssa (viola da gamba), Charles Zebley (flute), Paolo Zanzu (harpsichord & director)]

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 21 July, 2014
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Les Arts Florissants. Photograph: Guy VivienThe ‘Pièces de clavecin en concerts’ are the only surviving example of Rameau’s chamber music output, and were here performed in their entirety by members of Les Arts Florissants in the first of two Prom concerts marking 250 years since the composer’s death.

Rameau is under-represented in concert halls generally, yet his musical descendants – Debussy especially – were full in their praise for his elegant style and personality. Both were in evidence here, the musicians giving spirited performances of the character-pieces and dances that make up the five ‘concerts’ of the collection. They are designed for keyboard with instrumental support, contrary to the chamber music of Corelli, Vivaldi or J. S. Bach, and are in essence an antecedent to the piano trio as Haydn used it. The treble instrumental parts are flexible enough to alternate between violin and flute, and the dextrous Florence Malgoire often traded places with the sonorous instrument of Charles Zebley. Emmanuel Balssa played a seven-string viola da gamba of impressive range, the higher part of which Rameau exploits in support of the harpsichord’s harmonising line.

The musicians did well to manage the tuning of their instruments, all susceptible to the humid weather. Paolo Zanzu directed from the harpsichord with admirable panache, whether in the crisp detachment of ‘La Coulicam’ or the rapid arpeggios of ‘L’indiscrête’. There were notably beautiful textures in ‘La pantomime’, largely elegant but also impetuous at times. The appreciably darker ‘La timide’ drew some extraordinary colours supported by the depth of the viola da gamba, which was otherwise slightly reticent in the overall balance. This led to a brisk pair of ‘Tambourins’, more Italian in flavour, with Zebley moving from a pleasingly mellow tone to a piercing piccolo for the final flurry.

Rameau’s Pièces, helpfully highlighted in a discussion between Zanzu and BBC Radio 3 host Petroc Trelawny, were most intriguing. The regal Monsieur de la Poplinière, Rameau’s wealthy patron, demanded (and received) nimble finger-work for the harpsichordist. ‘La Forqueray’, a portrait of Rameau’s best-loved composer, brought fruity notes from his own instrument, the viola da gamba, while ‘La Marais’, referring to one of Marin Marais’s nineteen children, was a brightly voiced finale. The most intriguing character-piece was Rameau’s very early musical ‘selfie’, if you will – a grand depiction with extra spice added to the harmonies and with a vocal element to the melody that these musicians consistently found. In this way they found the composer’s essence, described by Zanzu as “strong but fantasque.”

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