Rameau on Hyperion

2007-01-19 / International Record Review / Stephen Pruslin

After her Bach odyssey and three CDs of Couperin’s keyboard music for Hyperion, it was only a matter of time before Angela Hewitt turned her attention to Rameau. These two masters of the French Baroque are often coupled like other familiar pairs of composers: Bach and Handel; Mozart and Haydn; Chopin and Liszt – though their differences often outweigh the similarities. This also evokes the two great figures of seventeenth-century classical tragédie, Corneille and Racine. Beyond the fact that the surnames of the two French composers and dramatists happen to begin with the letters C and R respectively, the comparison has some point. Apart from epicentres such as the Comédie Française, the work of Jean Racine is more familiar to present-day audiences, perhaps because it is overtly psychological in the modern sense. But the grande oeuvre of Pierre Corneille is waiting in the wings whenever we are ready for it.

By analogy, and stimulated by Wanda Landowska’s marvellous 1930/34 recordings, I have long been familiar with Couperin’s keyboard music; until hearing the present disc, however, much less so with that of Rameau, apart from his famous ‘Tambourin’ (included here) and a handful of other well-known pieces. As a result, this release has come as something of a revelation, not so much in confirming Rameau’s overall stature, but because of the sheer variety contained within his keyboard works. Whether they equal the range represented by J. S. Bach’s English and French Suites, and above all his Six Partitas, is a matter of personal opinion, but the three very different Rameau suites chosen by Hewitt suggest that the Frenchman comes quite close.

The E minor one strikes a balance between early dance forms: Allemande, Courante, Musette, Rigaudon (forecasting Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin), Tambourin, Gigue; and pièces caractéristiques with picturesque titles such as ‘Le rappel des oiseaux’. The G minor Suite adds a pair of Menuets but contains more pieces with descriptive tags, including ‘La poule’ (‘Le rappel’ writ large), ‘Les sauvages’ and the extraordinary, chromatic ‘L’enharmonique’, at nearly seven minutes the longest track on the entire disc. It also includes a few hybrids: ‘Les tricotets’ (not to be confused with ‘Les triolets’ in the same suite) is a quick dance evocative of nimble knitting-movements, while ‘L’egiptienne’ portrays a gipsy girl’s dance. Finally, the A minor Suite restores the balance between dances and genre pieces. It culminates in a brilliant Gavotte à six Doubles, with each Variation separately tracked.

Hewitt’s digital dexterity is by now very well known. What is interesting here is the way in which she deploys her fingers (and her musicianship) in the service of Rameau’s particular idiom. This expresses itself in two areas: the agréments that are a crucial aspect of his style, and which Hewitt observes without allowing those ornaments to smother the melodic line (in whichever voice it appears), and the notes inégales, which she applies in an informed yet instinctive way that is quite uncanny. She is fully aware of this music’s origins in the harpsichord (there are some lovely pianistic 4-foot registrations in ‘Le rappel’ and ‘Fanfarinette’), yet she never relies on superficial imitations of the instrument but succeeds in making the music sound as if it were composed for the modern piano in a way of which the composer would surely have approved.

After listening to this disc, l almost couldn’t believe I had experienced what it contains. I felt like keeping the music, and Hewitt’s performances, in my mind and ear, while also wanting to recapture them in physical sound. There is little doubt that the latter will only reinforce the former. The pianist’s booklet notes exhibit the same lucidity as her performances. In them, she quotes the 1957 Rameau biography by Cuthbert Girdlestone, who wrote that ‘La poule’ “has the intensity and single-mindedness of a Racine tragedy, with alternations of hope and despair”. That assertion could also pertain to Couperin’s great B minor Passacaille (Pièces de clavecin, Livre II, Ordre 8 – recorded by Landowska and by Hewitt in Hyperion’s Volume 1), so that an eventual live Couperin/Rameau recital by her, with an encore of Louis-Claude Daquin’s charming ‘Lc coucou’ continuing the Baroque bird-song, would be an event that generated a state of high anticipation.